Actions Louder than Words

A New Language for Psychoanalysis

by Roy Schafer
Yale University Press, 394 pp., $20.00

Although written by a psychoanalyst for other psychoanalysts and largely consisting of papers already published in the learned journals, this book should be of considerable interest to a wider public, since it proposes a radical reformulation of psychoanalytical theory which, if accepted, would render outmoded almost all the analytical jargon that has crept into the language of progressive, enlightened post-Freudian people—without, incidentally, providing them with an alternative set of in-words. If we accept Schafer’s thesis, we shall have to expunge from our vocabulary not only all specifically Freudian words such as ego, id, superego, impulse, cathexis, defense, but also and even such everyday words as love, aggression, guilt, and anxiety—though in the case of the latter group it will still be permissible to use their associated verbs and adverbs.

In order to understand why Professor Schafer is proposing such a radical change in psychoanalytical theorizing and, by implication, in the speech habits of both analysts and everyone else whose thinking has been in any way influenced by Freud, it is necessary to consider briefly the history of psychoanalysis. Freud was a physician and a scientist but not a philosopher, and as a result he translated his clinical experience into theories which accorded to the models provided by physics, chemistry, and neurology, postulating a psychic apparatus analogous to the brain, which consisted of structures—e.g., id, ego, and superego—which had functions, and within which forces endowed with energy were active.

Although Freud himself realized that this theoretical model was a fiction—a fact which Schafer omits to mention—it all sounded very scientific, it seemed to work as well as any theory was likely to, and it demanded no significant change in the habits of thought of those, mostly physicians, who trained to become psychoanalysts. As a result Freudian metapsychology became widely accepted as a scientifically respectable theory of mind, and it was not until after the Second World War that the suspicion arose among a few members of the psychoanalytical movement itself that there might be something amiss with the basic conceptual model that they were using.

The reasons for the emergence of this suspicion were various. One was the increasing complexity of the model itself as it became elaborated by theorists like Hans Hartmann who made heroic attempts to reconcile respect for the truth with loyalty to the Freudian model. If Hartmann was to be believed, sublimations could only be accommodated into Freudian theory by postulating that four different kinds of energy—libido, aggression, neutralized libido, and neutralized aggression—all circulated simultaneously within the psychic apparatus, and the imagination began to boggle at the circuitry implied in such an assumption. Another was the influence, greater in England than in America, of Wittgenstein and the linguistic philosophers, which led some analysts to feel that the fallacy of reification was involved in endowing abstract entities such as id, ego, aggression, and sexuality with attributes and propulsive powers and in evoking them as causal explanations.

A third …

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Letters

Psycholanguage October 14, 1976