Theory and Observation in Psychoanalysis: An Interview with Charles Hanly

Bradley Murray spoke with Professor Hanly about his research at the intersection of philosophy and psychoanalysis

When and how did you become interested in psychoanalysis?

My first research project was my PhD thesis on freedom in existentialism (largely Sartre but also Merleau-Ponty) and psychoanalysis (Freud). I had hoped to revise psychic determinism by employing ideas from Sartre. Sartre’s Nothingness turned out to be a radical denial of human nature. My research into Sartre’s corpus and Freud’s understanding of psychic determinism left me with no choice but to conclude contrary to my initial intention and expectation that choices are subject to psychic determinism – that Freud had it right.

For example, Sartre claimed that homosexuality is based on an unmotivated choice to take pleasure in homosexual acts. Sartre used this alleged fact as evidence that psychoanalysis is in bad faith because it provides the falsifying excuse that homosexuality is caused by a sexually driven object choice. He believed that homosexuals can equally make choices to be heterosexual.

I was acquainted with an intellectually gifted humanist colleague who had had a homosexual affair with a student he had met at a university club. He had been forced by university authorities to leave the university. At the time in 1960 homosexual acts were criminal in Canada. 

My colleague found employment at a small provincial college having married the daughter of the local Anglican bishop. My acquaintance had chosen to be heterosexual by marrying, siring two children, and acting the part as best he could but his “hidden” inner suffering was obvious. His choice did not make him able to “take pleasure” or fulfillment in heterosexual acts. 

Sexual orientation is not a matter of unmotivated choice. It is caused, as Freud thought, by a combination of genetic and developmental causal factors. Accordingly, as analysts, we need to be open to and observant of variations in the extent to which genetic and developmental factors are at work in the life of each patient. The IPA forbids the use of sexual orientation as a reason for a refusal to train. Neither heterosexual nor homosexual militancy of any kind has a legitimate place in psychoanalytic theory, practice or training. 

My PhD supervisor, numerous philosophy colleagues, and the visiting adjudicative member of my oral defence committee were not happy with my conclusions. But it was not difficult to show that essential tenets of existentialism contradict essential observations and theories of psychoanalysis in their theories of motivation, and the remainder of the oral was pro forma. I was rewarded with a tenure-stream appointment in philosophy. I also applied for training in psychoanalysis in order to gain access to clinical as well as non-clinical observations. My thesis was published under the title of Existentialism and Psychoanalysis by I.U.P.

What have been some of the main themes of your psychoanalytic research?

My research has been a theme and variations in epistemology as an advocate of Freudian scientific empiricism and as a critic of subjectivism. My basic premise has been that although clinical observations can be subjective, they can also be objective. I have labeled this position "critical realism." Psychoanalytic knowledge and self-knowledge is a resource for differentiating, identifying, and correcting subjectivity in the clinical experience of the analyst, even if it is not infallible and it can fail. Currently, I am developing these arguments in a book, An Epistemology for Psychoanalysis.

I have written critically of psychoanalytic theories that have sought to replace Freudian theories that I have considered to be sound. For example, I have argued that John Bowlby's attachment theory does not fully account for clinical anxiety symptoms and that the view does not explain why certain kinds of clinical interpretations referencing aggressive wishes can be therapeutic.

I have also argued against Heinz Kohut’s definition of narcissism. Kohut claimed that narcissism is the essential nature of libido. But this view is the logical contrary of Freud’s. For Freud, narcissism is one organisation of libido along with object love and sexuality. These organisations are interconnected in such a way that the augmentation of one causes a reduction in the other. I have argued that clinical observations of hypochondriac symptoms and their interpretation speak against Kohut’s definition. It is true that Kohut's self-psychology does call our attention to the continuation of narcissistic fantasies throughout the stages of development, from childhood to old age. This was largely left implicit in Freud and I have recently pursued the task of making explicit the beneficial contributions of narcissism to childhood development.

How do you see your work fitting into the current landscape of research and clinical practice of psychoanalysis?

I served as President of the IPA from 2009-2013. My first undertaking was to create two committees to organise research groups on clinical observation and theory testing and one on alternative theories that need to be tested against clinical experience if only because not a few of them are contradictory. The committee on clinical testing continues as an IPA committee. Having confirmed that analysts of different theoretical backgrounds can agree about what has been happening in an analytic process, this group is seeking ways and means to test theories. 

The committee on alternative theories was not continued by the IPA. However, it was planned from the beginning to be self-funding so the work can proceed by anyone who is interested. Since I am interested, I have continued the research project by forming two groups in Toronto to do conceptual and logical research on alternative psychoanalytic theories of aggression and the Oedipus complex. We have yet to publish the results of our work but plan to do so in the coming months. 

The ultimate goal is to find our way back to a mainstream psychoanalytic theory composed of our most probable knowledge and open to further development based on new clinical observations and the findings of adjacent sciences.

Charles Hanly is a psychoanalyst in private practice, a training analyst at the Toronto Institute of Psychoanalysis and Professor Emeritus (philosophy) at the University of Toronto.  Hanly is the author of four books, and many theoretical and applied papers in journals and books. He served two terms (2009 – 2013) as President of the International Psychoanalytical Association.

Further reading:

“Narcissism, Realism and their Paradoxical Relation”, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, (2020)
“Narcissism, Hypochondria and the Problem of Alternative Theories”, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, (2011)
“On Subjectivity and Objectivity in Psychoanalysis,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association (1999)
“A Critical Consideration of Bowlby's Ethological Theory of Anxiety”, Psychoanalytic Quarterly (1978)
(with J. Masson) “A Critical Examination of the New Narcissism”, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis (1976)