EssaysIn DepthPsyche

Who’s Afraid of Sigmund Freud?

The rise, fall, and possible resurrection of psychoanalysis in the United States

For decades psychoanalysis dominated professional approaches to mental health in the United States and had an influential impact on our culture. Starting in the late 1960s, however, psychoanalysis has become increasingly marginalized. Here, I will argue that psychoanalysis has always contained both subversive and conservative threads. As the historian Nathan Hale argued, Americans modified psychoanalysis to solve a conflict between the more radical implications of Freud’s views and the conformist pulls of American culture. This process of domestication enabled Americans to enthusiastically embrace psychoanalysis for a period of time. But they did so at the cost of transforming psychoanalysis in ways that ultimately contributed to its decline. Yet, ironically, the current marginalizaton of psychoanalysis may contain the seeds of a more radical psychoanalysis that serve as a healthy and constructive counter-cultural force moving forward…

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EssaysIn DepthPsyche

The Attack on Empathy

I feel for Jeremy Rifkin. In 2010, Rifkin, a public intellectual and best-selling author, published a remarkable book titled The Empathic Civilization. In it, Rifkin argues (1) that humans are soft-wired for empathic feelings toward others and that (2) this potential has to be fostered if we are to survive, as a species, on our precious little planet. The book is a tour-de-force, in which ideas, data from various disciplines and anecdotes are built upon to make a case for empathy. Rifkin is not always very precise, or even correct in reporting scientific findings, but by and large his thesis holds. Empathy is good for you, and for others, and as a society we should do our best to foster it. Yet, Rifkin’s ideas have been the target of a rather intense attack by several eminent scholars, notably psychologists Paul Bloom and Steven Pinker, and philosopher Jesse Prinz. What’s not to agree with in Pinker’s ideas?

Bloom, Pinker and Prinz, echoed by New York Times’ columnist David Brooks, do not think that we should rely on empathy to build a better world. Let’s review some of their ideas.

A good start is Brooks’ article. The article elicited a host of reactions among readers and, not surprisingly, among scholars who formally study empathy. These scholars saw decades of research findings dismissed in an 800-word piece destined to a reading public of hundreds of thousands. Brooks builds his argument “against” empathy from Steven Pinker’s last book (The Better Angels of Our Nature) and a chapter by Jesse Prinz, titled “Is Empathy Necessary for Morality.” The latter is a concise piece, which can be easily read over a 6 oz cup of coffee. Pinker’s is an 800-pages book, which deals with much more than this specific question, and requires a several gallons of coffee, and a great deal of determination, to be conquered.

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