Book Reviews -- Science, Systems, and Psychoanalysis by Robert Langs

By Cohen, Jonathan | American Journal of Psychotherapy, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Book Reviews -- Science, Systems, and Psychoanalysis by Robert Langs


Cohen, Jonathan, American Journal of Psychotherapy


ROBERT LANGS: Science, Systems, and Psychoanalysis. Karnac Books, London and New York, 1992, 262 pp., L18.95.

This latest book by Robert Langs is an attempt to extend and rework the ideas he has developed over the last twenty years. The language is that of systems theory, with a good deal of general commentary to support his conviction that psychoanalysis is on the verge of a breakthrough into a mature scientific discipline.

To appreciate this book, one must know Langs's previous work. He has already done a great service for psychoanalysis and psychotherapy by emphasizing the importance of the therapeutic "frame" or "ground rules." Due largely to him, we have been sensitized to the frame as an emotional matrix and adaptive context of profound importance. He has demonstrated that patients typically respond with exquisite unconscious sensitivity to analysts' defensive actions to compromise this framework. Interpreting unconscious communication is greatly enhanced when it takes in this adaptive context, and muddled or weakened when it does not.

He has also been a strong moral and political voice, because he has used his understandings to trenchantly criticize much of accepted analytic practice.

In this book Langs portrays the patient-analyst interaction as the "P/T system," the lawful behavior of which (e.g., enhancement or inhibition of complex derivative communication) can be determined through conceptual modeling leading to empirical studies. A graphic model of mind is presented that retains basic elements of Freud's topographic and structural models, modified in one essential respect by Langs's finding of a deep unconscious wisdom in seeking out the secure frame. Thus he posits a "deep unconscious wisdom system" alongside a "deep unconscious memory system" as key elements in processing interactions between people. In the last chapter he presents some recent empirical work based on recorded sessions. These efforts will surely produce further findings of interest.

The main thrust of the book, however, is his argument that psychoanalysis should transform itself into a branch of cognitive science. In my opinion, this argument is misguided.

There are good reasons to believe that a "science" of human experience is not yet, if at all, possible, precisely because science deals with systems, whereas human experience is based on value, by which systems are judged and transformed. It is a self capable of such valuative transformation that is the proper subject of psychoanalysis. Langs's approach in this book, I believe, illustrates the problem.

Assuming the empirical validity of his findings about needs for ground rules, two basic avenues of inquiry open up. The first would question why such needs--especially those that engage the patient in an authoritarian relationship--appear so widely in neurotic personalities, how they came into being, and whether they should be promoted as part of the analytic experience. …

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