The Scientific Methodology of Kurt LEWIN and Psychoanalysis

Giuseppe GALLI
University of Macerata

Abstract of the lecture at the 10th Scientific Convention of the
Society for Gestalt Theory and its Applications (GTA)
Vienna/Austria, March 1997

In his famous essay "The Transition from an Aristotelean to a Galilean Way of Thinking in Biology and Psychology" (LEWIN 1931), Kurt LEWIN recommends two necessary steps for psychological research which are connected with each other in science theory:
- the transition from non-personal to field theoretical (situational, relational) applications;
- the transition from a character centered to a function centered explanation of psychic phenonema.

In my lecture I pursue the question of whether or not FREUD and his followers, and also whether LEWIN himself and his school, have completed this transition. In 1934 J.F. BROWN, a student of LEWIN, wrote that "FREUD'S psychoanalysis fulfills some of the criteria for field theory, some for class theory, and with regard to some criteria is a mixture of the two types of theory." In regarding the difference between his topological psychology and psychoanalysis, LEWIN himself was of the opinion that the former understands all occurrences as emerging out of the totality of the life space, and accordingly, considers the person and the environment, whereas psychoanalysis concerns itself primarily with the person. METZGER was even more radical on this point. Although FREUD was the first to observe a person no longer as a psychological aggregate, but rather as a system, his concepts remain, nonetheless, solipsistic because for him "the borders of the dynamic system man were the same as the borders of the organism".
The psychoanalyst RICHTER also came to the conclusion that FREUD's developmental teachings rest on an individualistic model of thought, one related to the cognitive model of organ medicine. This is unreasonable in the psychological realm of human beings, as they are necessarily involved primarily with other human beings, not predominantly with biochemical or biophysical spheres.

One can then say: While with FREUD the therapeutic treatment rests on relational and dialogical methods, his theory contains building blocks impressed with monopersonal concepts.
Some disciples of FREUD have, nonetheless, overcome this inconsistency between theory and practice by using a relational model. I would like to mention just two directions:
- the narrative-linguistic direction, which employs narrative and linguistic theories in the analytical discussion;
- the dramaturgical direction (for example, Horst Eberhard RICHTER) which uses concepts of scenes, roles, etc. in order to represent the relationship of the patient to the therapist and to his or her environment.
Also to be mentioned here:
- The french psychoanalysts Madelaine and Willy BARANGER, working in Argentina, who view the patient and the therapist as complementary pair and propose to described it with the field model.
- The recommendation from Giancarlo TROMBINI, professor for clinical psychology in Bologna, who, in following the example of METZGER, describes the organization of the analytical pair by using the concept of the step structure and the ring structure, and examines the conditions and function of such structures.

In my lecture I consider finally the question of whether LEWIN consequently applied the field-theoretical approach in his own psychology. My opinion is that neither LEWIN nor FREUD satisfactorily solved the relationship between theory and practice. Certainly, his theory contains relational character, but nonetheless, his method lacks in dialogical character.

These inadequacies spring from different grounds:
1.) because the experience of the test subject is sometimes not thematized by the tester,
2.) because the structure of the field in the experimental situation does not allow the deeper levels of the person to be reached.

In regards to point one: let me cite the well know work of Bluma ZEIGARNIK as well as her necessary corrector Erika JUNKER, that the better remembering is not determined by not-being-finished but rather by not-being-right. In regards to this, I would like to note that the emphasis of the theory was here displaced too far along the object pole (the task structure) in the whole field, with the consequence that the interest in the person slipped into the background; in general, theory was given too much weight to the debit of the dialogical method.

In regards to point two: in comparison, the application of the field theory seems to have been completely achieved in another investigation from this research series -- that is in the work of Tamara DEMBO on anger. Here all of the variables of the field are examined: those related to the task, those related to the person and those related to the person-environment relation. The method includes not only the observations of behaviour but also the conversation with the test subject. Only then could important phenomena be brought to light such as: level of aspiration, substitution, going out of the field, reality layers, etc. The experimental situation is not, however, well suited to reaching the deep layers of the person, nor to really portraying the concrete structure of the psychic person with its inner dynamic facts, as LEWIN claims in his methodological essay. In my research of the phenomenal Ego (GALLI 1980, 1982), I was able to confirm--in opposition to LEWIN's opinion--that the test subject can not open up in the experimental situation in order to serve the research goals of the tester.

LEWIN postulated the necessity in psychology to cross over from an explanation of character (Wesenserklärung) to a function centered explanation. For example, he found the concept of the "terrible two's" (stubborn age) and also the psychoanalytical notions of drives lacking in that they have the character of an Aristotelean explanation of character and in essence are achieved through the abstract selection of similarities of a group of relatively common occurences. The abstractly defined class is seen as the essence, and seen as apt to precisely explaining the behaviour of the individual entity.

In the area of Gestalt theory character explanations were taken over by function centered explanations, for example, in the work by Tamara DEMBO which was already mentioned, and in the investigation of early childhood defiance done by Lilly KEMMLER, a student of METZGER. With the aid of field theoretical applications, KEMMLER was able to avoid the character explanation and explain the dynamic of defiance by identifying the person and environmental factors and their function in the whole situation.

There are also examples for function centered explanations gaining prominence in contemporary psychoanalysis. I am limiting myself here to the transference phenomen. Although FREUD analyzed yet purely from monopersonal perspective, the dramaturgical as well as the narrative-linguistic post-Freudian direction of psychoanalysis offer a completely different conception. In following both of these directions, the roles of the two participants, participating patient and therapist, are built on the here and now of the analytical situation. The question is no longer: why does the patient behave so or so, why does he say this or that?, but rather, why does he behave so with the therapist, or, why does he tell that to the therapist?


This is a provisional abstract of the lecture. The final and complete version has been published in German in GTA's journal GESTALT THEORY :
Giuseppe Galli: Beziehungen zwischen Lewins wissenschaftstheoretischen Begriffen und der Psychoanalyse. Gestalt Theory, 19 (2/1997), pp 80-89.

Back to 1997 conference program in English.
Zum Tagungsprogramm 1997 in Deutsch.


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