How psychoanalysis was born in Europe



Psychoanalysis was born at the end of the nineteenth century within a precise cultural, social, and historical context. It is a product of its times:

“During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, science was idealized as a method for finding truth. Thus, counseling approaches that claimed to be fundamentally scientific were developed during this time. In Europe, psychoanalysis was born. In keeping with the meaning systems of the culture, psychoanalysis combined scientific assumptions and a tragic European view of life. In terms of the scientific portion of the psychoanalytic narrative, structural reductionism, biology, and objective observation (i.e., the neutral psychoanalyst) were emphasized.” (Hansen, 2002, p.317)

However, beyond its clinical aspects, psychoanalysis has represented a strong and profound critique to the dominant discourse in society. It was at the same time its consequence, and one of the most powerful reactions to it. Together with Darwinism and Marxism it has radically changed ways of thinking. It points out the limits of the Western discourse and its principle of free will. The western discourse, which originates from Plato and from the Aristotelian logic, is logocentric, based on reason, and causality. It is a discourse of substance, of sense, where things have an origin and an end; it considers the word nothing more than a medium of communication (Verdiglione, 1986, 2002). From the beginning, Freud underlined the crisis of the subject, who was not whole and the master of his faculties as the positivist philosophers used to believe, but rather divided in itself (“The ego is not master in its own house”, Freud used to say). The different conception of the subject is what draws the line between psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. One of the principal contributions of Freud, the unconscious, has disappeared in most of today's psychotherapies, or has been re-conceptualized in cognitive or medical terms.

Psychoanalysis was invented in Austria by Sigmund Freud, a neurologist who soon realized the inefficacy of the medical paradigm for treating neuroses, and developed a new method for reading the symptoms and in general all the expressions which he named the unconscious. The diffusion of Psychoanalysis around the world was not casual, nor merely geographical (Verdiglione, 2002), but cultural, and linguistic; it has undergone particular routes and is tied to specific cultural and historical conditions. In some countries psychoanalysis has had a profound influence over its intellectual life, while in others remains almost unknown after more than a hundred years. For instance, it has had certain success in Great Britain, where Freud spent also the last years of his life. It has had a certain fortune in France too, while it encountered more obstacles in Italy because of the fascism first and later because of the opposition of the Church. One of the first countries to acknowledge Psychoanalysis, Russia, was also one of the first to forbid its practice (Etkind, 1997; Miller, 1998), since it was not functional to support the construction of the “new man” of the communism. To the same end in Germany, where a “Jewish” science (as Freud was) couldn’t have any right of citizenship, it arrived only after a certain delay. Evidently psychoanalysis has never had fortune in any totalitarian regime, or under any dictatorship, which should give us pause to question. Many scholars exported Psychoanalysis to the United States when they had to migrate there because of the persecution they suffered in Europe (many of the first psychoanalysts were also Jewish), but in the States, psychoanalysis was completely transformed into a “discipline compatible with the American Way of Thinking” (Benvenuto, 1997), and evolved far from (if not opposite to) the Freudian premises. “Psychoanalysis, when it was eventually imported to America, underwent a transformation that was also consistent with the American value system. […] American psychoanalysis emphasized adaptation to one's environment (i.e., ego psychology; Hartmann) far more than the tragic dimensions of living that were originally underscored by Freud” (Hansen, 2002, p.319). Though it undoubtedly had a certain success, it also ended up profoundly different to the Freudian version, losing much of its original critical power. Not only did the technique change, but the theory, the goals of the analysis, and its spirit, all changed in accordance with the American way of life and the American dream. Attention to theory diminished, and new ideas developed from some particular thinkers, rather than a scientific discourse, so that today instead of a real and fruitful pluralism we have a plurality of orthodoxies (Cooper, 2008).


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