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Family Theory

In response to:

The Emotions of Family Life from the November 27, 1975 issue

To the Editors:

Christopher Lasch’s interpretation of the theoretical import of The Wish to Be Free [NYR, November 27] is so far off the mark that we are compelled to respond. We cannot specify the full range of omission, distortion, and error, especially with regard to the theoretical issues Lasch has chosen to emphasize. We can, however, abstract and briefly examine some points particularly relevant to Lasch’s argument, and to the purpose of our reply. According to Lasch,

1) We followed Parsonian theory which substitutes imitation for internalization and thereby eliminates sexuality and the unconscious as analytic categories.

2) We were blinded by “modernization theory” and a unilinear conception of progress, insisting as a consequence that things are getting better when in fact they are getting worse. It is especially the case that people do not “wish to be free”; rather, they wish to remain dependent, as identified in the contemporary search, particularly among the young, for pre-oedipal consolations.

Now, what did we actually state with regard to these issues? We held the family to be an “associational” system tending precisely toward unconscious commitments (p. 15). We further elaborated the concept of “compliant obedience,” stating that “the child will act unconsciously in the direction of fulfilling certain commitments consistent with the demands of the primary objects(s)” (p. 184). And we stated as well that the initial commitments to values and to society at large must be established on a profoundly emotional (i.e., sexual) basis and that this is best achieved “at the earliest and simplest level of interaction, the relationship of mother to child” (p. 224). Lasch’s statements about “trite and superficial” role models predicated on “conscious learning” are utterly false and an unpardonable distortion of what was in fact written.

Moreover, we did not simply state, as Lasch has it, that men “wish to be free.” On the contrary, the whole thrust of our book revolves around the tensions created by instinctual ambivalence which gives rise to contradictory wishes for autonomy and dependence (p. 35). We made specific and categorical reference to “real and active wishes for the abdication of control,” and to “the abiding wish for love and protection” which threaten to undermine autonomous capacities in modern societies (pp. 202-203). And we did not fail to explain the variety of structural conditions which can and do lead to the renewed primacy of dependent ties (pp. 37-40). The irony here is that in our subsequent theoretical work, Psychoanalytic Sociology (Johns Hopkins, 1973), we considered this standpoint on instinctual ambivalence to be incorrect, shifting our emphasis from psychic reality and drive to social reality and affect. But no one interested in reporting seriously on The Wish to Be Free could have mistaken our original intention.

In Lasch’s argument, the “failure” to employ unconscious motivation as a category of analysis, and the “failure” to assess accurately the depth of dependent wishes and strivings are linked, and result from an unreflected ideological commitment to “progress” predicated upon adherence to so-called “modernization theory.” But it is impossible to find in The Wish to Be Free any analytic categories pertaining to such theory. We employed concepts of “modern” and “premodern” as broad descriptive categories in order to distinguish different organizational and ideological forms at different periods of history. We then outlined the personality traits characteristic of these forms and the reactions and strains that might follow from the transition from one to another. Above all, we made no claims for the inevitability or irreversibility of historical processes—quite the contrary, we explicitly rejected both possibilities (pp. 23, 39); and we advocated no specific direction. We claimed that historically the process followed a particular direction, from dependence and exclusion to autonomy and inclusion. But this is an empirical question, not a theoretical one.

These brief comments, decisive though they are for underscoring Lasch’s critical inadequacies, would not be worth the effort if they did not point to a deeper problem. Lasch singled out our work because of its orientation to theory as an ordering principle, as a technique for organizing masses of otherwise unintegrated data. Lasch claims to have a high regard for theory, proposing to expose the ideological content of ours while developing in outline a position of his own.

But in fact, Lasch is profoundly uninterested in theory. Lasch, as he emerges from the pages of his review, is neither theorist nor historian; rather, he is a culture broker for a particular “radical” orientation, an ideological warrior. Lasch’s critique is only peripherally concerned with data or theory, which are invoked only in so far as they serve in a struggle to determine which words people will employ in the interpretation of their world. Hence, there is nothing experimental, dialectical, or even merely novel in Lasch’s own position, as his references to Slater, Mitscherlich, et al., indicate. For example, even if we took seriously Lasch’s barren and spiteful views of contemporary youth, the points he makes are still better interpreted in the terms established in The Wish to Be Free, which at least have the virtue of theoretical parsimony, than in the terms he suggested.

Why then did Lasch make such an issue of theory? Lasch did so because theory serves for him the extra-theoretical purpose of closure; theory provides a closed ideological system in which the constant failure of people, especially the young, to live up to his ideals and expectations can be integrated and explained. This permits Lasch to indulge himself in some fashionable radical weltschmerz, larded over with equally fashionable phrases from unreconstructed psychoanalysis. This posture obviously helps Lasch keep his head above water. But it does nothing to explain the problems of contemporary society, nor does it serve to illuminate the past.

Fred Weinstein

Department of History

SUNY, Stony Brook

Stony Brook, NY

Gerald M. Platt

Department of Sociology

University of Massachusetts

Amherst, Massachusetts

Christopher Lasch replies:

Anyone familiar with the earlier work of Weinstein and Platt could have predicted the pose of scientific objectivity they adopt in their latest communication, together with the mean-spirited partisanship which their professions of theoretical purity do not manage to conceal. But even careful readers of Psychoanalytic Sociology, in which they announced (in a footnote) their intention of “withdrawing from certain theoretical positions established in [The Wish to Be Free],” could not have foreseen the unseemly haste with which they now attempt to dissociate themselves not only from the theory of modernization but also, it appears, from Talcott Parsons, whose concept of “differentiation” formerly provided the basis of their own work.

Withdrawal” has turned into pell-mell retreat. Redoubts once heavily fortified have been abandoned without a struggle and with no thought except for the immediate safety of the fleeing troops. Ancient allies are callously forsaken, left to certain destruction outside the gates.

In The Wish to Be Free, Weinstein and Platt used psychoanalytic theory, in Parsons’s bowdlerized translation, to illuminate “universal reactions to modernization.” They argued that men wish to be autonomous but feel guilty about this wish and sometimes regress to earlier forms of dependency. They insisted that writings by Rousseau, Helvétius, Sade, and Kafka, among others, exemplify this “inability to tolerate personal freedom.”

Expressions of a desire for dependence, on this view, belong historically as well as psychologically to archaic and outmoded forms of thought. The more “differentiated” a society becomes, the more it abandons external controls in favor of internalized self-restraint; accordingly the growth of autonomy can be seen as one of the “basic factors” in “modernization.”

Unilinear theories of history, such as “modernization,” always attempt to dismiss ideas and events that fail to conform to an expected norm of development as historically backward. To argue that men sometimes resist historically progressive forces, in this case “the movement toward autonomy and inclusion,” acknowledges in a purely perfunctory way the strength of the psychic forces threatening “to undermine autonomous capacities in modern societies,” as Weinstein and Platt now put it. In The Wish to Be Free, they left themselves no way of explaining why it is precisely the most advanced societies, in the twentieth century, that have harbored regimes based on the appetite for dependence and why those same societies have perpetrated atrocities on a scale of barbarism unprecedented in history. This inability to account for the central facts of the twentieth century constituted a serious shortcoming in a book purporting to explain “universal reactions to modernization.”

Notwithstanding its abundance of misinformation, its misinterpretation of texts, its fanciful assumptions about the history of the family, and its failure to support those assumptions with any scrap of evidence, The Wish to Be Free raised implicitly disturbing questions, even if the authors in the end chose to ignore them. Far from the truth as the book may have been, it came too close for their own comfort. Their flirtation with the forbidden Freud, though really quite innocent, proved too much for these worthies to sustain. They soon retreated to safer ground—another one of history’s little regressions, perhaps, from “the wish to be free.”

In Psychoanalytic Sociology, they repudiated the possibility that nature and culture make irreconcilable demands on the ego. Instead they adopted the newly fashionable view—the view of ego psychology and of Parsons—that “no substantial part of the personality…is unavailable to socialization,” in other words that personality is completely a social or cultural creation. Even in this new and far more cautious restatement of their position, however, Weinstein and Platt reaffirmed their concern with “the effects of the modernization process on personality”; nor did they hint that they were using terms like “modern” and “premodern,” as they now claim, merely as “broad descriptive categories.” On the contrary, they still maintained that “modern pluralized societies” encouraged the growth of autonomy, and that while “no known society is totally undifferentiated,” “we can identify historically a growing capacity among individuals for making conscious, ego-oriented choices.”

Only when the absurdities of “modernization” had been exposed to full view did Weinstein and Platt disown their ties to Parsonian theory—a theory which, whatever its other faults, had always rejected positivism—and decide, belatedly, that their categories were purely “descriptive” and that the question of whether structural and functional differentiation leads to increased autonomy was strictly an “empirical question.” If it really is an empirical question, their own failure to bring empirical evidence to bear on it becomes more puzzling than ever. But empirical questions and theoretical questions cannot be so easily disentangled, as Weinstein and Platt, those parsimonious purists, should be the first to know. In The Wish to Be Free they outlined what can only be described as a theory of history, and this description as well as being accurate has the additional virtue of charity: otherwise the book’s empirical deficiencies would expose it to ridicule and dismissal. Weinstein and Platt made explicit the historical assumptions that always lurked in Parsonian sociology even at its most apparently ahistorical. By doing so, they inadvertantly helped to expose the flimsiness of Parsonian sociology itself; for their own errors derived, not simply from a failure to consult the empirical evidence at hand, but from theoretical formulations that led them absurdly astray—for example, by causing them to reason that premodern fathers must have played a “maternal” role in the family and that sex-role differentiation occurred only in the “modern” family.

It is too late now to plead that these are only “empirical questions” after all. The mistakes that occur with such profusion in The Wish to Be Free grow not out of a misreading of historical evidence but out of adherence to a faulty theory, which assumes, among other things, that every kind of role-differentiation becomes more clearly defined as societies grow more complex and “pluralized.”

That theory cannot be rescued now by a last-ditch defense, a feeble volley of darts (however poisonous) from inside the walls. Having retreated to the safety of their positivistic fortress, Weinstein and Platt have abandoned what remains of Parsons’s Grand Theory to its unenviable fate.

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