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Psychoanalysis Theory 101: Epistemology of Psychoanalysis


This psychoanalysis course is based on the main object of study of the theory, the unconscious, and its multiple stipulations. It is a theoretical series that aims to explore the complexity of psychoanalysis not only from a clinical view, but a social one as well. It will discuss the science behind psychoanalysis, a debate this school of thought has had since the beginnings of Freud. A century ago, neurologist Sigmund Freud developed a theory from a medical and scientific perspective, yet found himself dealing with the impossibility of positioning psychoanalysis in such disciplines. This generated a century-long discussion where the value of psychoanalysis has been constantly questioned. However, its clinical and philosophical value remains intact nowadays. There is not one exclusive way of studying psychoanalysis, to think of this theory as a general worldview science is to disregard the vision this theory has: singularity. To study the unconscious is to study that which is singular, that which is unknown. The aim is to create a paved road of the psychoanalysis theory where the reader can walk through it with a considerate timeline on one hand while grasping the fundamental concept of the unconscious and its diverse applications when studying the human mind.

Psychoanalysis Theory 101 will be divided into the following sections:

  1. Psychoanalysis Theory 101: Epistemology of Psychoanalysis

  2. Psychoanalysis Theory 101: The Interpretation of Dreams

  3. Psychoanalysis Theory 101: The Language of the Unconscious

  4. Psychoanalysis Theory 101: Literature of the Unconscious

  5. Psychoanalysis Theory 101: Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis

  6. Psychoanalysis Theory 101: Psychoanalysis and Art

  7. Psychoanalysis Theory 101: Psychoanalysis and Cultural Discontents

Psychoanalysis Theory 101: Epistemology of Psychoanalysis

We have always been accustomed to identify psychic life in direct relation with consciousness. In psychology, we acknowledge the definition of a doctrine based on the contents of the conscious mind. Psychiatry is a medical field aimed to observe and study conscious alterations of the mind and diagnose within clinical charts and criteria. It is a challenge for it to be otherwise; science is a method that works with observation, and under this notion, to study the human mind in a scientific field is to study what comes possible to observe. There is no doubt that psychoanalysis, which studies the unconscious, comes as an esoteric field that does not qualify as science (Freud, 1920).

Sigmund Freud was a science man himself. His early studies began as a neurologist, along with his professor Josef Breuer, and it was their strong conviction to cure patients from disorders which escaped medical knowledge that lead to a study of the psyche in this field. However, to read Freud’s works is to hop on a boisterous journey of questions and contradictions. He found himself discovering an impossibility in medicine and had no other option than to embark on a theory as the only explanation for great evidence found in his keen exploration of the mind.

The birth of psychoanalytic theory set in motion a great change in humanity that has provoked, in turn, the questioning of positions and ideologies developed for a long period of time. Throughout his career, Freud still insisted on positioning psychoanalysis as a theory that belonged to the natural sciences. However, by its very essence, psychoanalysis cannot be framed under a scientific framework that is based on a nomothetic approach. Precisely, the attempt to frame it has subjected it to severe criticism where it has been condemned as pseudoscience or myth, invalidating a theory that has revolutionized human thought.

freud, psychoanalysis, portrait
Figure 1: Portrait of Sigmund Freud by Marcel Sternberger, London, 1938

As mentioned before, the scientific model by which academic psychology has been structured generally follows empirical-experimental criteria. The shift towards interpretative sciences undoubtedly opened the way for psychoanalysis. After Freud, great thinkers have dedicated themselves to the attempt of justifying the theory, seeking its position in accordance with scientific thought and receiving such investigative merit. Its theoretical body has been reformulated over and over again in search of more "solid" epistemological foundations. This is why psychoanalysis has been spoken in terms of technique, language, topology, mathematics, and even of what Jacques Alain-Miller calls a poetic endeavor. However, to align oneself with a certain position is, in turn, to dispense the essence of psychoanalysis. From a dogmatic and delimited point of view, psychoanalysis collapses under its own foundations (Tizón, 1995).

As we can see, for psychoanalysis the speculative dimension is inevitable. Freud introduces us to the observable aspects of his theory that allows us to account for the existence of an unconscious, but he reaches a point where he finds the impossibility of making an episteme of the unknowable, of that which consciousness does not know, and that is where science fluctuates. Is it possible to know the foundations of the unknowable? One thing is true, psychoanalysis will never tread on solid ground, in certainty, otherwise, we would be objectifying what is purely subjective. To set foot on solid ground would be the death of the subject, to neutralize it as an object.

The Scientific Journey

Throughout history, human beings have always sought to explain the world around them. Therefore, philosophy is born as a result of this incessant search to understand everything that exists; from Ancient Greece great thinkers were born in this eternal admiration and search for the origin and causes of all phenomena, and in turn, trace the main methods that allow the human being to find answers. Seen this way, "both Plato and Aristotle laid the philosophical foundations in which the different approaches and developments of the qualitative and quantitative perspectives would later be framed" (Guardián, 2007: p. 7).

greece, athens, painting
Figure 2: Detail of Raphael’s School of Athens, 1511, fresco at the Stanze di Raffaello in the Vatican

Consequently, these methods gradually evolved over time. In fact, between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, a series of social, cultural and ideological changes took place in the West, resulting in the Renaissance movement. Man began to separate himself from the authority of the Church and to shed his mythical beliefs. This opens the way to progress, to the modernization of philosophy and science. With the Cartesian method, Modern Science was born, by means of which knowledge was reached through rationalism. Descartes positioned mathematics as the way to understand reality, overstepping the long history of Aristotelian thought, under the premise that common language and senses lacked reliability. Mathematics was considered the main tool of measurement and only through experiments are we able to arrive to truth. This meant that thought was structured on ideas of objectivity and universality since they were governed by laws that produced univocal answers to these questions (Martinez, 2011).

However, time showed that this deductive method was valid for natural sciences, but it was not enough to understand reality in its greatest depth and to answer the metaphysical questions postulated by modern philosophy. During the 19th century, positivism was formed under the idea that it is possible to apply scientific laws to human and social sciences. Positivists believed it was possible to study social phenomena just as physical processes are measured. For the same reason, sociology arose with Auguste Comte (1830) in light of these progressive ideas, studying the evolution of humanity as a course of logical evolution. Nineteenth-century thought was based on the principle that knowledge is to know law, and that human behavior was predictable under these decrees. This school of thought affirmed that all knowledge comes from experience, the intimate cannot be separated from the relationship with others, and that the scientific method is the way to delimit them. In other words, scientists wanted to leave aside metaphysical questions that wondered about ultimate causes. On the basis of obtaining order, laws had to be created not only to understand human experience but to foresee them as well. This emphasized the importance of facts versus interpretations (Martinez, 2011).

Positivism considered that it was of importance to know only that which could be verifiable: the cause and effect relationship, that which could be measurable. Phenomenal complexities were understood by identifying their logical and scientific components. But, science was overpowered by the fact that these positivist ideals were not sustainable even in physics. The concepts of space and time are relativized by one of the most important scientists of mankind, Einstein, who stated that these two elements depend on one more factor: the spectator. Heisenberg, in his studies on quantum mechanics, introduces the principle of uncertainty by saying that the observer affects the reality being studied. As a result of this principle, Niels Bohr comes to the conclusion that there can be two opposite explanations for the same phenomenon, creating the principle of complementarity (Martinez, 2011).

Figure 3: The ophtalmoscope from article Victorian medicine: why the 19th century was a time of seismic medical change

The positivist model began to be questioned in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One of the most relevant philosophers of the 20th century was Karl Popper, mainly known for his theory of falsifiability, which criticized the principle of verifiability as a criterion for defining scientific knowledge. Popper postulates that verification is impossible, there is no absolute level of certainty. Hence, the criterion of verification of a theory must be done through falsification. For the philosopher, a universal truth that affirms particular cases is not possible, but only a single case is required to contradict a hypothesis. He dismisses positivist ideals of absolutism and dogmatic stances, opening space for questions and rationalist criticism towards interpretative theories. On the other hand, he questions the inductive method by stating that this method is neither logical nor analytical, but rather a synthetic enunciation. His position based science on trial-and-error methods and his philosophy was well criticized for the lack of contextualization and historical circumstances of the phenomena studied. Nevertheless, his critical rationalism contributed considerably to the progress of science and its current practice (Ibáñez, 2007).

Change was progressive and the post-world-war crisis finally gave a complete turn to the science field. Epistemology becomes essential and argues that, without its basis, there can be no knowledge of a discipline. Pure objectivity, the absolute truth of all things, empirical verification of certain phenomena, among other things, began to be questioned. The study of context and historiographic components become relevant. Temporality is now an essential variable in postmodern science, particularly when we are talking about social sciences (Guardián, 2007).

Nonetheless, the scientific model today still relies undoubtedly on an empirical-experimental nature, which implies the attention to objective facts and causal explanations based on generalist laws. This has caused many analysts and authors to attempt to reformulate psychoanalytic theory into an empirical one, seeking its validity within science. Bridgman makes the first attempt using an operational language to objectify and quantify psychoanalytic concepts, which resulted in a hybrid between psychoanalysis and behaviorism, where psychoanalytic theory ultimately found nothing productive for its research. Likewise, Sullivan, Schafer, and Klein, among other authors tried to mold the theory into other visions, from an attempt to renew the psychoanalytic language to the idea of broadening the concept of science, or even positioning the theory as a craft technique (Sanchez, A., Sanchez., P., 2005).

Figure 4: Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst by Remedios Varo, 1961

It is relevant to observe a linguistic discussion that is formed when questioning science. The flaws, the contradictions, the limits, the need for new principles, the phenomenon of what is subjective and contextual; its play within the objective. A new approach is adopted, where objectivity is considered impossible in certain fields, but theories are still attempted under a practical worldview, proposing a general order of facts that can be verified. Tizón (1995), in his work, Do interpretative sciences exist?: considerations on the epistemological limits of psychoanalytical knowledge, mentions the following:

"For Junker, although Sigmund Freud tried all his life to justify psychoanalysis as a science in its own right, he could not see it as a complete and closed system. In doing so, in my opinion, he only anticipated what decades later would be considered "the epistemological consequences of Godel's Theorem": no theoretical or scientific system can justify all its concepts, theories, postulates and premises from within itself. There will always be at least postulates and premises that have to be justified from another science or discipline... or that remain "unjustified", as authentic ideological-philosophical postulates" (p. 59).

Therefore, every theoretical system is considered open; it needs other disciplines to prove its hypothesis. The only way for a theoretical axiom to have coherence, to be explained, is from another theoretical axiom. We can confirm that science is not autarchic and psychoanalysis addresses such impossibility. Psychoanalysis theory opens its field to mathematics, physics, economics and linguistics. This theory takes use of a language that does not compromise with what is normative; a characteristic epistemological reflection. The psychoanalytic interest points towards semantics. The pathways of drive can only be approached through the pathways of meaning, and this is why psychoanalysis requires linguistic theory. The psyche is a producer of symbols, of messages; to interpret psychic life is, logically, to interpret linguistic expressions. Through the evidence the unconscious manifests itself, such as: jokes, failed acts, lapsus, and dreams, we can only navigate and analyze them within a language that allows interpretative depth. A figurative language still has its limits but opens depth to explain precisely what is profound and not fall into what is dogmatic. Metaphor, then, makes it possible to create links and relationships for which our everyday vocabulary would be too dense and laborious (Ricoeur, 1970). French philosopher Alain Badiou (2011), in his book Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophy, says the following:

“There is no doubt a specular relationship between the theses on being and the theses on the proposition. This link is contained in the notion of the picture, which is introduced axiomatically: "We picture facts to ourselves" (2 . 1 ) . These pictures are on the order of language. But in the final instance it is that which is not in the picture that is ''higher,'' having an authentic value . The point of being that is "truest" is not captured in the specular relationship in which the ontology of the world and of language is constructed.” (p. 94)

painting, surrealism, art
Figure 5: The Double Secret by René Magritte, 1927


Undoubtedly, the evolution of science has made a great journey that has been controversial in the debate of reality and our knowledge about it. It seems inevitable the existence of what Freud proposes as metapsychology. The limits of science have required this theory to borrow metaphorical language that allows the study of what Freud introduces as such. To codify in language the singularity of the unconscious is to exclude it from its own singularity, "to define is to limit,"as Oscar Wilde says. But how do we study the singularity of a subject from the universality of language? And even more so, a subject that is constituted by language itself. We are faced with a fundamental contradiction in psychoanalytic theory.

However, to recognize the limits of a doctrine is also to grant its essence to human thought. There is no unique way of looking at psychoanalysis. To think of this theory under generalized and worldview concepts is to disregard the perspective towards what is singular – a perspective that psychoanalysis finds in the art of listening. There is a dimension of being that escapes observation; the empirical approach comes short when we focus on the unconscious aspect of the mind. It is precisely this discovery that revolutionized humanity, the discovery of an unconscious: a knowledge of which one does not know (Lacan, 2002).

Bibliographical References

Badiou, A. (2011) Wittgenstein's Antiphilosophy translated and with an Introduction by Bruno Bosteels. ed Verso, London.

Freud, S. (1920) A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. New York: Horace Liveright.

Guardián, A. (2007). El paradigma cualitativo en la Investigación Socio-educativa. Costa Rica: PrintCenter.

Ibáñez, J. (2007) Scientific Method according to Popper: Conjectures and Refutations.

Lacan, J. (1998) Le Séminaire, livre V: Les formations de l’inconscient: 1957–1958. Texte établi par Jacques-Alain Miller. (Paris: Seuil, 1998a)

Lacan, J. (2002) Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Bruce Fink. (New York: Norton, 2002)

Martínez, M. (2011). El Paradigma Sistémico, La Complejidad Y La Transdisciplinariedad. Revista Electrónica de Humanidades, Educación y Comunicación Social,6(11), 6-27.

Ricoeur, P. (1970) Freud and philosophy: An essay on interpretation. (Translated by Denis Savage), New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970.

Tizón, J. (1995) ¿Existen las ciencias interpretativas?: una reflexión acerca de los limites epistemológicos del conocimiento psicoanalítico. Universitat de Barcelona, España

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Gabriella Yanes

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