Social Sciences and Psychoanalysis. Toward a New Dialogue

Georgia O’Keeffe—Hands and Thimble, by Alfred Stieglit CCO Public Domain AIC

The dialogue between the social sciences and psychoanalysis was both lively and fertile in France until the 1990s. Because the founders of the Annales school were especially interested in and sensitive to psychology and the study of affect, such efforts were particularly visible among historians. A bit earlier, from 1950, Roger Bastide had prepared the ground for a discussion between sociology and psychoanalysis, although without much success. Among philosophers, we can consider Paul Ricoeur’s work on Freud during the 1960s. The Frankfurt School’s attention to psychology during those same years also undoubtedly sustained Freud’s inputs into the critical understanding of the twentieth century experience. Among political philosophers such as Cornelius Castoriadis, Claude Lefort, and Marcel Gauchet, reference to psychoanalysis was also central. In terms of political analysis, notable works were published in the early 1980s—always with a different perspective—in particular by Eugène Enriquez, Serge Moscovici, and Raphaël Draï.

In the social sciences, it is very difficult to think about the articulation between the historical and the psychic, and perhaps even more widely subjectivity, without which our understanding of phenomena risks being reduced to mere description. However, the question is not the same in the French and German traditions. For Durkheimian positivists, the study of subjectivity is put aside by the principle of method. Because individuation is conceived as a socialisation (“the fundamental element of our personality is what is social in us”, wrote Durkheim), this perspective leaves little room for the psyche and its derivatives, namely association and intimidation, highlighted by Taine, Tardes, Ribot, and Le Bon. In terms of a history of ideas, we could almost claim that through its theory of representations and collective beliefs—which are of a different nature than that of the individual—the French school elaborates something like a social unconscious that rules out the idea of a psychic unconscious. For Weberians, however, subjectivity is central and constitutes the starting point for all analysis, provided it is understood in human interactions, as meaningful purposes that are part of the pre-existing culture that these interactions also help consolidate.

Max Weber sought to take comprehensive sociology out of psychology in order to better free it from any notion of race or primary origin, be it ethnic or linguistic. By seeking to elaborate the conditions of universal validity of judgements based on understanding, Weber distinguished between sociological comprehension and psychological comprehension. For Weber, “comprehensive sociology is not a branch of psychology” and he even claimed that psychic dimensions do not explain institutions but rather the opposite. In a text written in 1904 on the objectivity of knowledge in social sciences and policy, he declared that “no progress is made by moving from the psychological analysis of human qualities to that of social institutions, but [...] on the contrary, the elucidation of the psychological conditions and effects of institutions presupposes a perfect knowledge of the latter and the scientific analysis of their relations” (our translation). The transfer from the one to the other occurs through institutions that bear the marks of conflicts and collective negotiations. Rules are the result of human tensions. Questioning institutions—what sociologists do—means also questioning psychology. To conclude with Weber, who continues in the text cited above, “psychological analysis then simply means an extremely interesting deepening of the knowledge of their historical conditionality and cultural significance in each concrete case”.

Beyond the French and German sociological traditions, and without even referring to the suspicion of ethnocentrism coming from anthropology, the Freudian construction has often been criticised for claiming as invariant or natural that which actually comes from the social. Libido, ego, superego, and the unconscious are, for the sociologist, social states, states of the ego created by the social in which the individual is inscribed. Sticking to an intangible opposition between nature vs culture, drive vs repression, Freud is challenged for not seeing that there is a “structure”—a disposition, according to Norbert Elias—within the individual, which makes it possible to adapt to repression: self-control. The question that has been taken up by many anthropologists is that of the “processual” dimension of the various phenomena that touch the unconscious and the libido, that risk being considered as eternal.

A new research group has been launched at the CERI that intends to reflect not only on why the dialogue between the humanities and psychoanalysis started to dry up four decades ago, but also on the promises that fill the questions and research on the political phenomena of the masses, racism, extremism, terrorism, anti-Semitism, and nationalism that are part of our contemporary world. In order to assess the epistemological and methodological problems that have hindered this dialogue and to identify the main stumbling blocks related to conflicting paradigms, the group will start by reading some of main reference works that have sought, within psychoanalysis, resources to elucidate the social-historical in order to draw heuristic notions (such as repetition, drive, identification…) from these reference works. This reading will distinguish between social science texts that rely on psychoanalysis and those—often authored by psychoanalysts—that deal with their object through the exclusive lens of the unconscious, in order to compare the limits and the inputs of both categories.

Building on the return to these texts, the work of the research group will then question the fruitfulness and limits of psychoanalytical paradigms through case studies on contemporary political trauma. In this respect, the questioning of the historicisation of the unconscious will become fully relevant. How can certain historical and political phenomena be interpreted in this way? Are there privileged objects—violence, passions, memorial phenomena, racist hatred—for which the contribution of psychoanalysis would be particularly substantial? What about the analysis of conflict? The uses of psychoanalysis are obviously diverse, and it is only through the precise analysis of the phenomena that we will be able to approach the modalities of the articulation of the historical and the psychic, without concealing the difficulties of their validation in a strictly academic sense, without pretending to impose a single paradigm, and therefore respecting the methodological autonomy of each discipline.

* Co-organised with Paul Zawadzki

Cover image: Georgia O’Keeffe—Hands and Thimble, by Alfred Stieglitz. A work made of palladium print. CC0 Public Domain Designation, Art Institute Chicago, Alfred Stieglitz Collection.

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