On the Value of Primary Sources

In the first graduate course in psychology that I taught the students were disturbed to find original writings of Freud and Jung on the reading list. They came to me and complained that the reading was too difficult. These were mature students, already working in the field, and they were intimidated by the original works of major writers. They had been educated for years with textbooks that systematized and summarized the theories of the founding psychologists. But a textbook is a reduction of subtle thought into a simple outline. In the process of strwamlining a complicated thought, soul is lost. The beauty of the writings of Freud, Jung, Erickson, Klein and others lies in their complexity, in the innner contradictions that appear from work to work, and in the personal quirks and biases that are everywhere in the original writings and nowhere in the textbooks. You couldn’t find quirkier writings than Freud and Jung, and in their personal styles lies the soul of their work.

– Thomas Moore, in Care of the Soul

The attitude of those students sums up in a nutshell everything that is wrong with modern psychotherapy.

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  1. these were graduate students???

    how bizarre.. none of the history grad students that I know would ever be surprised by primary sources–in fact, we start teaching primary source research to undergrads doing “honors” work in any of our basic (freshmen/sophomore) level classes.

    I, personally, find the field of pscychology to be a very shady affair.. although the subject matter is way cool–knowing about people’s minds etc etc… the way in which this research is done and especially the powerful role that particular educational ideologies hold in this field makes it rather questionable in my book..

    1. Re: these were graduate students???

      I think psychology’s biggest problem has been it’s inferiority complex and consequent need to establish itself as a legitimate hard science. Consequently it has seen one after another researcher posit strict models for what is undeniably a very squishy subject matter. Jung, despite his tremendous scientific intellect, was smart enough to know that strict reductionism was not going to be productive when applied to psychotherapy. I think subsequent researchers and practitioners have lost that essential insight in their rush to categorize, codify, and diagnose.

  2. I don’t have much sympathy for the students here, but I think the biggest flaw in modern psychology is on the other end: that the “soul” of the field lies in the “inner contradictions”, “biases”, and “quirks” of the founders. Why are those writings on the reading list anyway? Do physicists read Newton and Einstein in the original? (Much less Aristotle, who might be the better comparison here, because he founded the field, but most of what he wrote turned out to be wrong, much like Freud.)

    Historians are a special case. Their “primary source” *are* the data they have to work with. Consulting them is the equivalent of a physicist doing laboraty work.

    If psycology textbooks are simply summarising Freud et al, then yes, it makes sense to dump them and take the originals. But if they are, then the field hasn’t progressed since it’s earliest, sloppiest guesswork, and the students almost ought to abondon their studies and take their own guesses. From what I hear from practitioners, this is what real psychologists do.

    1. I have to disagree, at least partially. While psychology has progressed in many ways, a lot of that early “guesswork” (an unfair term) was more important than anything that came later. I wonder how many of those textbooks retained Jung’s essential lesson that the most important thing you must do when approaching a new patient is to forget everything you think you know? Psychology is not like any other field. It deals with a complex, quirky, and contradictory realm – the psyche. Unlike in other sciences, in psychotherapy reductionism often does more harm than good, because the therapist starts to think of the mind as a machine that can be refitted and fixed like any other mechanism. On a molecular level that may be true, but on the level of therapist-to-patient interaction, the complexity and individuality of each psyche must never be forgotten, nor the fact that the therapist’s own psyche plays as big a part in the dialogue as the patient’s.

      1. I wonder how many of those textbooks retained Jung’s essential lesson that the most important thing you must do when approaching a new patient is to forget everything you think you know?

        As a psych major, I can say with some authority: “None that I’ve ever seen.”

        Psychology does something as a field that almost no other field does: it educates students about the history and development of the field. How many math majors know anything about the history of their discipline? How many biologists?

        Any psych major worth their salt knows that freud had a few screws loose, but the important thing about learning all of that stuff is to learn what modern psychology has built on to become what it is today.

        When it comes to therapy, I come down solidly on the side of “No, it is not important to read those original sources.” No therapist needs to actually read Freud or Jung. It is important for therapists to know the [amazingly codifiable] methods of counseling.

        IMHO, the original writings of many of the classic psychologists belong more in philosophy clasrooms than in any course of training for certified clinicians and counselors.

        1. I will add as an addendum:

          Those professionals who are interested in a more in depth, nuanced view of their field and the psyche will probably read the sources themselves eventually.

          Those who are not wouldn’t get anything out of them anyway.

          1. I will add my own addendum:

            I am perhaps an exception in my own field, in that even though I have little formal education I take a keen interest in the history of computer science, and in the men and women who created it. With few exceptions I can say that they were smarter than the ones who came after (they had to be; they were creating the field from scratch), and that their insights, in the large, are still as valid as ever and have never been more relevant than they are today. Just as a single example: most “modern” computer languages are currently in the process of converging on the features of LISP, a language that was created fifty years ago.

            What you say of psychology is probably just as true of computer science: those who aren’t interested in getting a deeper, more nuanced understating of it wouldn’t get anything out of the original sources anyway. However, my experience in this field is that those who have no interest in the history of their work have no business doing it in the first place, and should probably be selling cars instead. Is it really so different for psychology?

          2. It is different for psychology, just as it is different for medicine. You don’t have to study DaVinci’s works in order to be the best heart surgeon in the country.

            Yes, any source of additional input or insight is going to be beneficial to any field.

            But no one can do everything, and ultimately, therapy, like medicine, is a field of applied science. Sure, I’d love to have a doctor who’s read everything there is to read, but if I had to prioritize, I’d much rather he keep up on the latest periodicals and up to date procedures than read DaVinci.

            Please don’t accuse me of reductionism. I am not devaluing primary sources, simply prioritizing them where they belong in the applied sciences.

          3. It is different, but I’m unconvinced that it’s different the way you say it is. I think you can make psychotherapy an “applied science”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve found the most effective, or perhaps I should say important approach. People aren’t machines with a few loose screws to be tinkered with and tightened. I just can’t see it as a field for technicians. I have a lot of “broken” friends who, if “fixed”, would lose everything that makes them beautiful. What is the point of therapy, of learning to cope with life, without some philosophy to help you see why it’s important to do so? Better a priest who uses psychology as a tool, than a therapist who elevates the tool to the supreme position.

          4. Look, ignore me. I know I don’t have a formal background to stand on. I just can’t shake the feeling that psychotherapy is missing the forest for the trees.

          5. I think we’ve got a different approach to this. You’re seeing therapy as a holistic life discipline, while really all it can claim to be is a technique for behavioral modification for specific problems. Any therapist who claims it is more than that is lying. At best, therapy can remove obfuscating emotional blocks allowing the patient to see their own life more clearly and then begin working on those holistic life issues themselves.

            I know what you want. I want that too. That’s just not what therapy is right now though, and honestly, I’m not sure you could ever train people for that.

          6. I think people have been training for it for thousands of years – it’s just that they were called priests, pastors, rabbis, shamans, etc. I’d hate to see therapy elevated to the level of a holistic life-discipline, as you so aptly put it. That smacks of the scientism of the early 20th century. I’m just not convinced that it’s best practiced as a separate, secular practice divorced from our existing and evolving life-disciplines.

          7. I’m just not convinced that it’s best practiced as a separate, secular practice divorced from our existing and evolving life-disciplines.

            I’m not convinced that anything is best practiced as a separate practice separated from our existing and evolving life discipline. . .but we live in a compartmentalized culture, and it will take far more than a redesign of the therapeutic model to change that.

          8. On your example: While it is awesome that you are versed in the history and lessons of past computer scientists, you are useless to me as a programmer if you cannot actually program. I know that you can, but that would be the priority. Do you know the language(s)? Do you have the necessary problem solving skills? Can you debug? If the answers to those questions are “No” then it doesn’t matter what you know about the history of LISP. It’s just a matter of priorities.

          9. The fact that I know the history of LISP is the best clue you have that I can write a decent program. There may be other items on my resume which indicate I am familiar with certain tools, but only my knowledge of history tells you that I am a craftsment. I would use the same heuristic in hiring a new programmer, and I would be biased towards a practiotioner of ANY field who showed interest in and knowledge of it’s history. It is, in my experience, the surest indicator of someone who is genuinely dedicated to their craft – and therefore, that they are genuinely good at it.

          10. So you would hire a person who knew the history of a language, even if they didn’t know how to program in that language?

          11. That’s not what I was saying, but… Sure! Anyone who’s been doing this for any amount of time knows that the language itself is one of the less important aspects of software engineering. A programmer worth hiring will pick up any new language within two weeks, and become proficient in it within two months – more proficient than a mediocre progarmmer would become in two years. Why? Because there is wisdom, instinct, and insight which is more important than any amount of technical knowledge. And one of the most reliable indicators of that kind of intimacy with the art is a knowledge of it’s history.

            Now back to the actual scenario I was suggesting… interviewing, say, a C++ programmer who knows his lisp history for a C++ job. Even more so, I would hire him. Sure, in the best case he’s also a longtime C++-coder (more important in C++ than in most laguages, since it has so many gotchas). But the perspective that familiarity with the tides of CS history implies far outweighs any keywords on a resume.

        2. I’m … fairly surprised to see you say that. Considering the wretched therapists that are all too prevalent out there, do you really feel that the cofication of psychology has really been a success? As someone who recognizes the importance of symbol, philosophy, and ambiguity (I call to mind your interest in tarot) to her own psyche, how can you say that a rationalist, codified psychology is sufficient?

          1. how can you say that a rationalist, codified psychology is sufficient?

            Perhaps I did not explain myself well. Let me condense it: I believe that the process is more important than the source, and I would much rather therapists have more immediate practical training dealing with actual people and present conflicts than spend time reading theory that is almost a century old.

            I don’t feel the codification of psychology has been entirely a sucess. I do think there are some very good therapeutic models that work in many situations. I personalyl am a big fan of Rational Emotive Therapy, a new form of Cognitive therapy. Though each patient is different, the underlying methodology is the same: lead the patient to confront the false beliefs that make them unhappy (ie. nobody likes me, I am ugly, I’m a failure, etc) and teach them how to teach themselves a new viewpoint on life. It’s brilliant. It has almost nothing to do with Freud except perhaps it’s reliance on insight.

            As someone who recognizes the importance of symbol, archetype, philosophy, etc, and as a psych major with some minimal experience in the field, I have learned that 95% of people do not think like me, and 95% of people prefer to keep their archetypes in their subconscious and instead tackle practical problems with practical methodology. And if this helps heal people, then I am okay with that. For the 5% of people out there like me who prefer a more nuanced and philosophical approach to the psyche, there are still therapists who practice a more old school psycho-analytic approach, they are just few and far between and take a little searching to find.

            For most people, however, my professional reccomendation would be coginitive therapy, not psycho-analytic.

          2. For the record, Rational Emotive Therapy (have they dropped the Behavioral part?) has a lot of resonance with me too. Which may seem odd, since it would probably dismiss all that mushy soul-stuff that I love so much as so much pointless handwaving. But I find it’s pragmatism appealing after years of dealing with psychotherapy steeped in the “dredge up the past” model. It’s also deeply influenced by both Buddhism and General Semantics (Albert Ellis has written and lectured on GS), two highly compatible philosophies that both interest me.

            The map is not the territory, as Korzybsky would say. I don’t think any single model of something as anything as hard to nail down as the psyche is sufficient. The biggest problem I see with codification is that it foments dogma, which is why I think that one insight of Jung’s is so important. 95% of people MAY be okay with keeping their unconscious unconscious – but then why do so many of them go to church?

          3. Perhaps that is a question that is better asked in church anyway.

          4. Surely you’re not suggesting that something which occurs in a “religious” context has no bearing on any other part of life?

          5. No, of course not!

            But I am suggesting that perhaps therapy is better when applied to a specific problem, while the larger context may be better sought in a different discipline, say spirituality or philosophy.

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