Comparison of Classical and Hermeneutical Psychoanalyses on Their Views of Past

Paker, M. (1997). Klasik ve yorumsamacı psikanalizlerin “geçmişe bakışları açısından karşılaştırılması [Comparison of classical and hermeneutical psychoanalyses on their views of the past]. Toplum & Bilim [Society & Science], 72, 102-127 [In Turkish with English Abstract].


The assumption that our past determines/shapes our current situation is generally accepted not only by layperson but also by many schools of psychotherapy including classical psychoanalysis of Freud. Yet during the development of psychoanalytic theory, there has been an ongoing debate about the role of past in psychotherapy. Two main questions can be identified regarding this debate:

1. Can “past” be seen as the cause of “present?”

2. Can “past” be a therapeutic tool in changing patient’s current situation?

Different answers (and answer combinations) to these two questions reflect quite contrasting positions within psychoanalysis. For the purposes of this article, hermeneutic psychoanalysis is compared with classical psychoanalysis since the former represents the most challenging position to the classical theory by trying to stay within psychoanalysis. Freud’s classical theory answers both questions positively whereas its hermeneutical contemporary revision says a strong “no” to the first question and a different “yes” to the second one. To classical psychoanalysis: 1) Past is the direct cause of present. Unconsciously repressed memories of actual past events (historical truth) are the direct causes of current psychological problems. That is why, 2) past by itself is a therapeutic tool in changing patient’s current situation, in the sense that recapturing these repressed memories of past leads to self-understanding, and thus they are curative. If the patient cannot recapture these repressed memories, then, analyst has to, via historical interpretation, construct patient’s past. Yet, “our construction is only effective because it recovers a fragment of lost experience” (Freud, 1937, p.265). In short, to Freud, the concepts of “historical truth” and “historical interpretation” is not at all contradictory, but complementary. To hermeneutical
psychoanalysis, on the other hand: 1) Past is not the cause of present. Instead it is a product of present. Yet, 2) past is still a therapeutic tool in changing patient’s current situation, in a different sense that a narratively coherent personal past that is reconstructed leads to a more meaningful self-understanding. Contrary to classical psychoanalysis, the concept of historical truth is rejected, and is replaced by narrative truth. It is expected that historical interpretation, in the sense of reconstruction of narrative past, will change patient’s present situation.

In this article, I first demonstrate the contrasting epistemological positions of these two approaches, by highlighting unitarian and dichotomist epistemologies. Showing and criticizing how they substantiate their answers on epistemological and clinical grounds, it is attempted to discuss the issues of metapsychology vs. clinical theory, historical truth vs. narrative truth, recovery vs. (re)construction of past, and historical interpretation, and their places in both approaches. Within this context, the
underlying assumptions on human memory of these two approaches are also inferred:

1) Passive vs. active registration, 2) Objective vs. subjective representation, and 3) intact vs. reconstructed past. These assumptions then are evaluated under the light of relevant contemporary memory research of cognitive psychology. It is concluded that research on autobiographical memory does reject Freud’s assumptions on human memory while supporting those of hermeneutical psychoanalysis.

There seems to be three main differences between classical and hermeneutical psychoanalyses: 1) Grand theory vs. single domain (clinical) theory, 2) Their underlying assumptions on memory, 3) Their positions on the two crucial issues: a. The causal effect of past on present, b. Past as a therapeutic tool in changing patient’s current situation. It is also emphasized that, despite their contrasting positions and
having differing intentions, both approaches are past-oriented and contend-focused, as opposed to being present-oriented and process-focused. After examining strengths and weaknesses of both approaches on these issues and relying on the commonalities of three different sources (“style-personality” of David Shapiro, “RIGs-self” of Daniel Stern, and “self-schema” of cognitive psychology), I attempt to propose a different answer combination to the two main questions of this article: Past is just an indirect cause of present. Since it is still a cause, it is important to consider it in developmental studies/theories; yet since it is indirect, it cannot be used as a therapeutic tool in changing patient’s current situation. A reasonable clinical theory should be presentand process-oriented, because personality functions in present tense. To put it differently, a grand theory may be pluralistic in the sense of having different epistemologies for its different subtheories. Not Freud’s mechanistic determinist model, but relatively loose and multifactorial/complex deterministic models can be tested in [empirical] developmental/longitudinal studies, with being aware of that this kind of explanation does not help us in changing adult patient’s current situation, which requires a phenomenological understanding.