As a technique of human investigation, psychoanalysis has always been based on the patient’s concrete relationship with the world, since it starts from the reworking and reliving of the patient’s memories within the specific relationship of the analytical situation. The novelty of this technique is that man is studied in relation to the way he modifies himself and modifies the world. This is the fundamental difference of this technique from all earlier ones: it is not an exterior contemplation undertaken by two people without obligation to each other. The difference of principle between a dialectical approach and a metaphysical and positivist approach lies precisely in this fact. Methods which start from an essentialist position look at man from the outside and try to establish his nature or static character. Dialectical method, on the contrary, is necessarily and consciously a ‘praxis’, because it admits that consciousness changes the world and that the world changes consciousness. It is thus perfectly legitimate to speak of a latent dialectic in even the most orthodox psychoanalysis because it shares what is fundamental to any dialectic: namely, of being, by necessity, a ‘praxis’ which modifies the reciprocal relationship of subject and object in a historical and totalizing perspective. Like any dialectic, psychoanalysis is a constant and fluid passage from one determination to another. At every stage of its spiral, contradictions are transcended and integrated anew. There is always a reciprocity between man and the world (the world of man being, before everything else, other men), rather than the linear, unilateral causality of metaphysics or mechanistic positivism.
Psychoanalysis as a technique, then, is naturally dialectical and social. Psychoanalytical theory, however, can only become truly social when it realizes that, within its own perspectives, it is analyzing social exchanges. In effect, even before a child’s birth his future is conditioned by his position in the family; the child’s response to that position will in turn modify the family’s attitudes; and it is through this open and unceasing dialogue that he will assume his personality. This spiral development is not an abstract ‘ideal’; it is revealed in the child’s real, malleable relations with his environment.
The psychoanalytic dialectic must be social because man can only exist and develop within society. The great psychic mechanisms like identification, projection, introjection, repression, sublimation, rationalization —in the way they are described by psychoanalysts—often appear to be sterile, purely intra-psychic exercises, leading nowhere. But if they were, they could have no existence. They exist only because they function, and they function only because they are, in reality, historical and inter-psychic.
Group psychology and sociometry have partially grasped the fact that psychic mechanisms are inter-personal phenomena. They have managed to establish schemata for the exchanges between members of a group, and have tried to draw up laws from these applicable to all groups. This micro-social psychology has, however, given rise to anti-social and anti-scientific applications, though it need not do so. For it analyzes the group outside its social context: it does not take into account its economic, cultural and historical basis. In doing so, it has sometimes provided weapons for the worst sort of social exploitation—the attempt to simulate a temporary and narrow improvement of ‘human relations’, divorced from their historical context, by making the atmosphere of factories ‘more agreeable’ without modifying the real basis of alienation in them. Mystifications of this kind, parading under the banner of social psychology, must of course be rejected. The genuine scientific achievement of the new social psychology is considerable, however, as long as it is properly situated in the framework of an open dialectic. For the dynamic of a concrete group only acquires its real meaning (like that of the individual psychic mechanism) within the perspective of a critique much wider than that of the small group.
At the confines of orthodox psychoanalysis, two divergent trends can be observed which can roughly be summed up as follows. On the one hand, there are those psychoanalysts who attempt to cure individual neuroses by social adjustment (Adler, Horney, Sullivan, etc). On the other, there are those who claim to cure social neurosis by changing the individual. For the first, the individual neurotic process is caused by maladjustment to society. This view confuses the ‘reality principle’ with the contingent reality of a historical society, a confusion which serves only to legitimize the latter. For the second group, the attempt to change a society that is in itself ‘neurotic’ is also neurotic, since such an attempt takes place within the framework of a general ‘neurosis’ and consequently obeys a ‘compulsive repetition’ of the initial disorder.
Condemning society, this tendency thereby condemns any organized social effort to change it.
The two conceptions are, at bottom, equally individualist and idealist. Mental ‘health’ is either guaranteed by society (through the medium of the psychoanalyst who has conferred society’s ‘reality principle’ on himself), or by the psychoanalyst (who exorcises society through the medium of the individual). Both ignore the fact that individual development cannot be abstracted from the social order, and that reality cannot be confused with its alienated and mystifying appearance.