Psychoanalysis and Its Place in the Evolutionary Chain of Academic Disciplines

By Wagner, James W. | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, October 2009 | Go to article overview

Psychoanalysis and Its Place in the Evolutionary Chain of Academic Disciplines


Wagner, James W., International Journal of Psychoanalysis


In the long history of liberal learning and higher education, proponents of recent additions to the list of broadly accepted academic disciplines have had to overcome biases on the part of the academic establishment, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, have had to become willing to endure full intellectual access to and criticism of their field. Proponents of academic psychoanalysis face similar challenges today.

Keywords: academics, higher education, teaching, liberal learning

The histories and processes by which the academic canon has been established, maintained, expanded, contracted, and otherwise modified are fascinating. What subjects and majors should be sanctioned by the academic community? What areas seek to build at the core of knowledge? What areas are mere fads or fantasies or unexamined schools of thought in the name of an historic founder? What interdisciplinary activities never evolve tap roots of their own, and which ones sprout rich new fruit, not merely drawing from but going beyond the scope of their respective parents? And specifically, whither psychoanalysis?

There is a great deal to be learned from the history of the evolution of the academy that might be germane to the standing of the discipline of psychoanalysis in the university. Consider once again the oft-told history of the roots of higher education and liberal learning, a history that goes back at least to Cicero's time. It was a time when the seeds of liberal learning first took root. Liberal education had (and still has) only two fundamental purposes. First, liberal education is intended to provide a means for students to identify and hone their respective learning styles. Scientists and engineers tend to be linear and logical thinkers. Humanists tend more often than not to follow more parallel paths of thinking to forming opinions and expressing thoughts. For the purpose of identifying one's learning style, several disciplines were offered as part of the early canon. Seven were most fundamental among these. They were grouped in the Trivium and the Quadrivium. The Trivium consisted of grammar, dialectic (logic and reasoning), and rhetoric. Within the Quadrivium were arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy.

To be reminded of these roots leads to the discovery of one of the longstanding biases of the university establishment relative to the professions. Remember that early liberal learning was available only to the free man - education liberalis - most often the aristocracy. There was never any expectation that professional preparation would be part of this new institution. In fact, there was no real need to seek employment at all. Remember, these early students were members of the aristocracy whose economic futures were assured. Theory and the transmission of skills necessary to illustrate and display theory were all that was expected to be gleaned from a formal liberal education back then.

But what of disciplines like psychoanalysis and fields like engineering that have strong practiced and professional components? Under what circumstances should they be welcomed into the academy both to contribute and to benefit? Surely they, like the original members of the liberal arts canon, help develop a learning discipline and create a thirst for new knowledge. Does the fact that these disciplines existed first as professions outside of the academy make their eventual entrée into the university difficult? In other words, are the academic aspirations of those from practiced career professions compromised because their academics are derivative from the profession rather than their profession being derivative from the academy? Are there other biases within the academy that work to thwart the entry of such disciplines? Could it be that there are means at the disposal of the advocates for such disciplines that could be used to bring about academic acceptability?

To answer these questions in general and their bearing on the particular issues that make difficult the entrée of psychoanalysis as a fully accepted academic discipline, consider the history of engineering in the academy. …

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