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Freud describes psychoanalysis as comprising:
- a discipline founded on a procedure for the investigation of mental processes that are otherwise inaccessible because they are unconscious;
- a therapeutic method for the treatment of neurotic disorders; and
- a body of psychological data evolving into a new scientific discipline.
Although the history of psychoanalysis is inseparable from that of Freud's life and of the long self-analysis which led him to write his great Interpretation of Dreams (1900), it is clear that his new science is rooted in the traditions of nineteenth-century psychology and biology. Freud's ventures into anthropology, which he views as an integral part of his new scientific discipline, are also influenced by nineteenth-century theories of evolution and by their attendant eurocentrism; hence the analogy between the "mental life of savages and neurotics" posited in Totem and Taboo (1913), and the argument that the life of an individual re-enacts or repeats the life of the species. It is also clear that Freud's descriptions of the workings of the unconscious, with it s flows of energy, and of libido and its mechanisms of discharge, owe much to the physics and hydraulics of his age.
The technique that evolved is the method of free association, with the patient or analysand lying on a couch and with the analyst sitting slightly to the rear and out of eyeshot. The patient is required to tell everything and omit nothing; the analyst to listen to everything and to privilege nothing. Free association around dreams or memories allows unconscious chains of fantasies and wishes to be reconstructed and then interpreted so as to uncover underlying structures, which, typically, relate to the Oedipus complex and repressed childhood memories, usually with a sexual content.
The central factor in the analytic treatment is the transference that allows unconscious or repressed material to be reactualized in verbal form rather than reproduced in symptoms, and projected onto the analyst. In a classic Freudian psychoanalysis, the analysand has daily sessions of analysis, each lasting fifty minutes (the so-called 'analytic hour'); the payment of fees is held to have great symbolic importance. Freud never claimed that his method was a universal panacea, but once remarked with typically pessimistic wit that it could transform "hysterical misery" into "common unhappiness."<ref>1893-5.</ref>
Although psychoanalysis is widely practiced and has had an important influence on related therapeutic methods, it has never been defined in either medical or legal terms. The profession is self-regulated and its standards of practice are defined by the various national associations recognized by the International Psycho-Analytical Association. The would-be psychoanalyst undertakes a personal analysis before embarking upon a rigorous training analysis designed to promote a recognition of the importance of transference and counter-transference. Qualified analysts normally work under the supervision of their seniors, and usually undertake at least one "second analysis." The first generation of psychoanalysts were, like Freud himself, doctors of medicine, but suitably qualified non-medical or lay analysts were admitted to the profession from the 1920s onwards.<ref>Freud. 1926a.</ref> The desirability or otherwise of medical qualifications is a matter for the various national associations. The question of the scientific nature of psychoanalysis remains controversial.
Freud's own career was punctuated by a series of breaks with colleagues to whom he had once been close, and the history of the psychoanalytic movement is one of splits and schisms as well as of international expansion. All the major tendencies within contemporary psychoanalysis claim a Freudian ancestry, but take as their stating-point different periods in his work or different aspects of his theories. Very schematically, the main post-Freudian currents within psychoanalysis are ego-psychology, Kleinian psychoanalysis, object-relations theory and Lacanian psychoanalysis.
Lacan trained initially as a psychiatrist, and turned to psychoanalysis to help him with his psychiatric research. This then led Lacan to train as a psychoanalyst himself in the 1930s. From then on, until his death in 1981, he dedicated himself to practicing as an analyst and developing psychoanalytic theory. In the process, Lacan constructed a highly original way of discussing psychoanalysis which both reflected and determined an original way of conducting the treatment; in this sense it is thus possible to speak of a specifically Lacanian form of psychoanalytic treatment. However, Lacan never admits that he has created a distinctive "Lacanian" form of psychoanalysis. On the contrary, when he describes his own approach to psychoanalysis, he speaks only of "psychoanalysis," thus implying that his own approach is the only authentic form of psychoanalysis, the only one which is truly in line with Freud's approach. Thus the three major non-Lacanian schools of psychoanalytic theory (Kleinian psychoanalysis, Ego-psychology, Object-relations theory) are all, in Lacan's view, deviations from authentic psychoanalysis whose errors his own return to Freud is designed to correct.
From the very beginning, Lacan argues that psychoanalytic theory is a scientific rather than a religious mode of discourse, with a specific object. Attempts to apply concepts developed in psychoanalytic theory to other objects cannot claim to be doing "applied psychoanalysis," since psychoanalytic theory is not a general master discourse but the theory of a specific situation.<ref>Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 747</ref> Psychoanalysis is an autonomous discipline; it may borrow concepts from many other disciplines, but this does not meant that it is dependent on any of them, since it reworks these concepts in a unique way. Thus psychoanalysis is not a brance of psychology, nor of medicine, nor of philosophy, nor of linguistics, and it is certainly not a form of psychotherapy, since its aim is not to "cure" but to articulate truth.