Hard Science and Psychoanalysis

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"Hard sciences" are those disposing of a theory of measurement. The development of qualitative mathematics, since the middle of the 19th century, and its diverse applications have made this description questionable. By the time he was thirty, Freud was a brilliant researcher in the field of natural science, well-versed in neuro-anatomy and neuro-physiology, in addition to having done some work in chemistry. At the laboratory of Brücke (1876-1882) he acquired an expertise in chemistry and physics, including thermodynamics (Helmholtz). As to epistemology, Freud, besides his familiarity with the German positivist school and the debates it carried on with Vienna (Brentano, Manch, Bolzmann), attended, for two years, Brentano's seminar on Aristotle. In his writing, Freud refers little to the hard sciences as such. He uses the German system of classification: sciences of nature and of mind, situating psychoanalysis among the former, while insisting that it is relevant to "almost all the sciences of the mind" (1924f). There was one exception: "Strictly speaking, there are only two sciences: psychology, pure and applied, and natural science" (1933a, p. 179). Freud was frankly ironic about official sciences, assuming, moreover, the following position: "Scientific thinking does not differ in its nature from the normal activity of thought, which all of us, believers and unbelievers, employ in looking after our affairs in ordinary life" (1933a, p. 170). The relationship between chemistry and psychoanalysis was formed early on—the former lent some of its prestige to the latter, signifying that the scientific method was common to both of them Freud, and Freud hoped that chemistry would isolate the toxins linked to sexuality and neuroses. The contribution of thermodynamics to his dynamic and economic point of view was evident also; his use of the terms "free energy" and "bound energy" makes this clear. Considerations of stability, carried over from Fechner, equally played a part. At a time when psychoanalysis was still unsure of its foundation, Freud defended the theory of the drives by noting that physics also was unsure of its foundations. Accordingly, he placed the discoveries of Copernicus and Darwin, and his own, on the same plane, for having dealt blows to human narcissism and religious convictions. Finally, a nostalgia for energetics surfaced when he evoked the "quantitative factor," decisive for symptomatology, yet unattainable. "Analysts . . . cannot repudiate their descent from exact science and their community with its representatives. . . . Instead of waiting for the moment when they will be able to escape from the constraint of the familiar laws of physics and chemistry, they hope for the emergence of more extensive and deeper-reaching natural laws, to which they are ready to submit" (1941d [1921], p. 178-79). Qualitative dynamics, which reinterprets thermodynamics, may prove to be a part of this hoped-for emergence.


  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1924f). A short account of psychoanalysis. SE, 19: 189-209.
  2. ——. (1933a [1932]). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 22: 1-182.
  3. ——. (1941d [1921]. Psycho-analysis and telepathy. SE, 18: 173-193.
  4. Lacan, Jacques. (2002).Écrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W.W. Norton