Monday, April 01, 2013

Causation in Psychoanalysis - Nikolai Axmacher

This recent article from Frontiers in Psychoanalysis and Neuropsychoanalysis attempts to bridge the gap between the hermeneutic perspective of psychoanalysis and the causal relationships that adhere in science. In doing so, he argues against the following three reasons for the epistemological divide:
first, that psychoanalytic attempts to overcome repression aim to go beyond causal relationships; second, that hermeneutic explanations are retrospective and context-dependent and therefore follow a different logic than causal explanations; and third, that only causal hypotheses are falsifiable, while the introspective reasons for one’s own behavior are not. 
This is an interesting article whether you agree with his conclusions or not (I tend to agree with him in principle), so check it out.

Causation in psychoanalysis

Nikolai Axmacher1,2
1. Department of Epileptology, University of Bonn, Bonn, Germany2. German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, Bonn, Germany
It has been argued that psychoanalytic and biological theories cannot be integrated because they rely on different epistemological grounds, namely on hermeneutic versus causal explanations, that are inconsistent with each other. Such inconsistency would seriously question the general possibility of neuropsychoanalytic research. Here, I review three important arguments that have been raised in favor of this inconsistency: first, that psychoanalytic attempts to overcome repression aim to go beyond causal relationships; second, that hermeneutic explanations are retrospective and context-dependent and therefore follow a different logic than causal explanations; and third, that only causal hypotheses are falsifiable, while the introspective reasons for one’s own behavior are not. I present arguments against each of these statements and show that actually, causal and hermeneutic explanations are, at least in principle, consistent with each other. The challenge for neuropsychoanalytic research remains to find indeed empirical examples of theories which are causal and hermeneutic at the same time.
Full Citation: 
Axmacher N (2013) Causation in psychoanalysis. Frontiers in Psychology. 4:77. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00077


Neuropsychoanalysis – the attempt to integrate psychoanalytic theory and practice with a consideration of the neural basis of human behavior, cognition, and affects – may take several forms. Initially, it referred to the psychoanalytic study and therapy of patients with brain lesions (Kaplan-Solms and Solms, 2000; Solms and Turnbull, 2002). Subsequent studies widened the scope by including experimental investigations of psychoanalytic concepts – from studies on the neural basis of psychodynamic therapy (e.g., Axmacher and Heinemann, 2012; Buchheim et al., 2012) to the operationalization of specific concepts such as the constancy principle (Carhart-Harris and Friston, 2010), dreams (e.g., Dresler et al., 2011; Ruby, 2011), repression (e.g.,Anderson et al., 2004; see Axmacher et al., 2010 for a critique of current operationalizations), psychodynamic conflicts (Loughead et al., 2010), etc. In addition to this empirical research, the epistemological basis of combining psychoanalysis and neuroscience has been widely discussed. Here, my goal is to contribute to this discussion by focusing on one, particularly problematic aspect, namely the relationship of the hermeneutic (or “depth hermeneutic,” as it includes unconscious processes; Lorenzer, 1986) approach taken in the psychoanalytic attempt to understand and reconstruct conscious and unconscious narratives, and the scientific strife for explanations in terms of causal relationships. The following considerations do not intend to provide an exhaustive overview of all arguments raised on this issue. Instead, they aim to provide a limited personal account on a question which remains central for the neuropsychoanalytic endeavor.


During psychoanalytic therapy, analyst, and client aim to understand the analyst’s mental and affective life. Many aspects of this inner life appear initially absurd and paradoxical; the belief that even (and particularly) apparent nonsensical aspects are relevant and may in principle be understood is a cornerstone of psychoanalytic theory (Brenner, 1955). The process of understanding these phenomena has been conceptualized as “hermeneutic” – as a circular process by which an initial and superficial understanding is incrementally improved as analyst and client co-construct meaning through conscious and unconscious affective transference. Scientific researchers also search to understand seemingly random phenomena when they attempt to find regularities in their data. These regularities may then be used to generate predictions for future experiments and to build hypotheses about underlying causal laws. Freud throughout his life maintained the ideal to combine these two levels of investigation – to find scientific explanations for the conscious and unconscious psychic contents and somatic symptoms that he observed in his patients. In this combination of qualitative hermeneutics with quantitative theories, Freudian psychoanalysis had a unique dual epistemological character (Ricoeur, 1970). Many philosophers (e.g., Habermas, 2005) and psychoanalysts (e.g., Spence, 1982; Thomä and Kächele, 2006) criticized the biological ancestry of Freudian psychoanalysis and its attempt to find “metapsychological” laws of psychic life that resemble the explanations in the natural sciences; instead, they suggested to ground psychoanalysis on a purely hermeneutic basis.

However, purely hermeneutic explanations are epistemologically problematic because they typically act in a retroactive manner – they attempt to explain consisting affects, psychic contents, and somatic symptoms, but do not make predictions about future developments. Therefore, purely hermeneutic hypotheses are inherently difficult to falsify, which has been extensively criticized by philosophers such as Popper (1963). This problem would not occur if hermeneutic reconstructions were (at least in principle) consistent with causal explanations – in this case, one could predict that removal of the cause should alter its effect as well. Indeed, some philosophical accounts of psychoanalysis suggest that repressed conflicts generate neurotic symptoms in the same way as physical causes induce observable effects in the external world; in this case,one would predict that removal of repression during the course of psychoanalytic therapy should also alleviate the symptoms(e.g., Grünbaum, 1984).

On the other hand, several arguments suggest that hermeneutic reconstructions are fundamentally inconsistent  with causal explanations. In the remainder of this article, I will discuss three such arguments and try to convince the reader that this apparent inconsistency does, in fact, not exist. The first argument is based on the  introspective notion that we experience ourselves as free, whereas no freedom appears to exist in a causally closed world. Similarly, it has been stated that causal explanations are inconsistent with the therapeutic aim of an enhanced degree of autonomy. Second, psychoanalytic reconstructions attempt to provide conscious or unconscious reasons – for an action, a somatic symptom, or a psychic content such as an affect (for the opposite view that explanations of seemingly irrational behavior are based on causes but not reasons,see Davidson, 1982). However, providing a reason appears to follow a different linguistic logic than finding a cause: typically, reasons are only given retrospectively, for example to justify some action. This occurs in a specific social context. Therefore, depending on the context, very different reasons maybe given to justify the same action. In contrast, a cause should always lead to the same outcome. Third, while hypotheses on causal  connections are falsifiable, introspectively perceived reasons for my own behavior appear not to be–I know best the reasons why I acted in a certain manner.

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