On Truth and Clinical Psychoanalysis

By Hanly, Charles | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, April 2009 | Go to article overview

On Truth and Clinical Psychoanalysis


Hanly, Charles, International Journal of Psychoanalysis


Philosophers have enumerated three criteria of truth: coherence, correspondence and pragmatic. I shall define them and examine some of the relations among them. My overarching argument is that these three criteria of truth, when adequately defined, can be seen not to be at odds with each other but to work together in the search for truths in clinical psychoanalysis. I write 'truths' not because I think that truth is relative but because I do not subscribe to any metaphysical theory of absolute truth as in Plato, Descartes or Hegel.

A secondary purpose is to sustain a distinction between two concepts of inter-subjectivity. The first concept is the one that we are familiar with in common sense, scholarship and science: an observation is intersubjective, if it can be made by any competent observer of the relevant domain of fact. What is intersubjective in observation is the opposite of what is subjective, i.e. opposite to what, in an observation, belongs to the idiosyncrasies of the observer and not to what is being observed. The second, very different notion of intersubjectivity is that it consists of inextricable transference and countertransference interactions that take place in the relation between analyst and analysand in psychoanalysis and which result in the co-creation of the analysand whose nature and history are formed by the analytic relation. This definition of intersubjectivity legislates the historical being of the individual, a being that is independent of the analyst, out of existence. To Aristotle's rhetorical question: 'That nature exists who can doubt?' contemporary subjectivist analysts reply: 'Psychoanalysts should doubt the independent existence of at least that part of nature that is psychic reality'. Subjectivism repudiates the epistemic independence of the patient in his or her relation to the analyst and, consistency would require, the same of the analyst in his or her relation to the patient. Of course, we analysts sometimes feel differently about different patients. The vignette below illustrates an exceptional anxiety in the analyst in response to a patient. But from these and similar facts it cannot be inferred that an analyst's capacity to know is inevitably altered by his or her responses to each patient. After all an appropriate affective response will normally quicken rather than compromise the analyst's observation and thought.

To be sure, our work as clinicians reminds us of the manifold ways in which our own personalities, beliefs and affects can interfere with our clinical work. Our clinical observations and thinking are intrinsically fallible. But it does not follow that they are in principle subjective or that we are intrinsically snared in intersubjectivity of the second kind or that we can never achieve intersubjectivity of the first kind. Thoma (2007) has pointed to 'a deep paradox in Freud's work' between the intersubjective and the scientific. This paradox is generated by elevating the remediable technical problems of subjectivity in the analytic situation into an intersubjectivist epistemology yielding the second meaning of the term, in which the technical problems become irremediable in principle. The paradox ceases to exist if we preserve the commonsense, scholarly and scientific meaning of the word 'intersubjectivity'. One of the problems of intersubjectivity in postmodern psychoanalytic epistemology concerns the nature of truth.

The coherence criterion of truth states that a theory is true if and only if it provides a consistent explanation of the phenomena to be explained. A theory that has to rely on a hypothesis that is not consistent with the basic concepts and principles of the theory fails the test. A theory that cannot account for all of the phenomena to be explained also fails the test. Coherence requires logical consistency (non-contradiction) and explanatory completeness. The coherence theory of truth asserts that theories that meet these criteria are true. …

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