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    Can Freud Be Globalised?
    Psychoanalysis and the Non-Western World

    Accommodating the tension between the fundamentally similar nature of man across the world and the differing existential narratives of East and West, it becomes clearer and clearer that while Freudian metapsychology has a universal validity, the developmental notions and therapeutic methodology of psychoanalysis are Euro-centric. On the other hand, it is encouraging to see that Freud’s skeptical reductionism vis-à-vis God’s existence has mushroomed into theoretical notions of much larger scope.

    Psychoanalysis originated in Western Europe at the dawn of twentieth century. Its founder, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), was Jewish and so were most of his early pupils and associates. The Wednesday Psychological Society he founded in Vienna, Austria, (circa 1902) had an exclusively Jewish membership and by the time this select group expanded to become the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, most members and frequent visitors from abroad were Jewish. While initially congenial, this homoethnic cloister began to worry Freud. He felt that it could preclude a wider acceptance of psychoanalysis. He therefore welcomed the unmistakably Nordic Carl Jung and the thoroughly Welsh Ernest Jones to the psychoanalytic circle. Though his effort to anoint Jung as his successor floundered, the synagogue of the unconscious became open to Christians. The psychic, interpersonal, and sociopolitical ramifications of such admixture were not openly considered, however. An occasional mention of it in analysts’ personal correspondences, bits of gossip, and a rare awkward acknowledgement of the ethnic divide within the profession notwithstanding, little of conceptual significance emanated from the Jewish-Christian amalgam within the psychoanalytic ranks. The new entrants were pulled into the theoretical and technical vortex of psychoanalysis which remained focused upon intrapsychic matters of desire and anxiety to the exclusion of the individual’s sociocultural heritage. Freud repeatedly emphasised that, in the matters of mental suffering, it is the psychic reality that counts, not external reality.

    Encountering ‘real’ reality

    The impact of Nazi atrocities upon concentration camp survivors and their next generation led to a brutal ethnocultural awakening of psychoanalysis. It became obvious that the individual mind did not exist in isolation from its socio-political envelope and that psychic structure required stimulus nutriment from the outer world for its stability. Moreover, the Jewish diaspora following the Holocaust resulted in European émigré analysts’ clinical encounter with the culturally different patients of North and South America. This made clear that acknowledging the racial and religious differences within the analytic dyad could catalyse the analytic process and disregarding them could complicate it. Psychoanalysis, while mainly concerned with the inner world, began to pay greater attention to external reality.

    Matters became more muddled with shifting population patterns throughout the world and, more specifically, the changing demographic make-up of the United States and Western Europe. East to West immigrants of varying nationalities (e.g. Indian, Iranian, Nigerian, Turkish) and religions (e.g. Hinduism, Islam) started joining psychoanalytic ranks as patients, trainees, and practising professionals. Consequently, the applicability of the Western-evolved psychoanalytic theory and technique to an ethno-culturally diverse population came into question. Further impetus to such scepticism was given by the emergence of interest in psychoanalysis in the increasingly urbanised India, China, Japan, South Korea, and to a lesser extent, Turkey. The enrichment of psychoanalysis by regional idioms was becoming inevitable.

    A fresh assessment of Freud’s brainchild was thus warranted. However, to accomplish such a task or even to meaningfully undertake it, one needed to underscore that the corpus of his work (and that of his followers) belongs to four categories, namely (i) metapsychology, (ii) hypotheses regarding personality development and its deviations, (iii) therapeutic approach to emotional disorders, and (iv) speculations about creativity, religion, and civilisation at large. A consideration of these four categories of psychoanalytic ideas and their potential validity across cultures follows.


    Freud referred to his way of understanding mental phenomena from dynamic, topographic, and economic perspectives as a ‘metapsychology’. The dynamic perspective sought to explain mental phenomena in terms of the interaction of forces. Such forces could be contradictory or collaborative, infantile or contemporary, and progressive or regressive. They can be bodily anchored and have specific sensual aims or can represent the morality that has been internalised during one’s formative years. Interaction between such forces results in intrapsychic conflict. A variety of outcomes are then possible, including compromise formation, deflected and disguised gratification, or stalemates, inhibitions, and psychic paralysis. The topographic perspective refers to the fact that there are conscious, preconscious, and unconscious aspects to what human beings think, feel, and do. The first are known to them, the second can become readily known, and the third exist totally outside of our awareness and cannot be easily brought to the surface. Besides their psychic location, the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious mental phenomena have different operational characteristics. The medium of expression of the conscious and preconscious systems was figurative and lexical, while that of the unconscious was concrete and sensual. Moreover, there existed censorships between conscious and preconscious, and between preconscious and unconscious; the unconscious material had to alter its form from ‘thing presentation’ to ‘word presentation’ as it travelled across these barriers. With the introduction of the ‘tripartite model’ of the mind (id, ego, and superego), defensive operations of the ego and certain moral injunctions of the superego also became traceable to the deeper layers of the unconscious.

    The economic perspective dealt with the energy of the forces behind mental phenomena. It assumed that psychic energy determined the nature of mental processes; easy mobility and low discharge threshold characterised ‘primary process’ and stability and high discharge threshold characterised ‘secondary process’. The former seeks immediate relief of tension, allows one object to be replaced by another, permits one idea to merge with another, and does not abide by the constraints of time and contradiction. The latter relies upon verbal representations, is loyal to Aristotelian logic, respects time, and contributes to rational thought. Among other notions subsumed under the economic perspective were intensity of drives, degrees of excitement, tension discharge, and quantum of emotion that was essential for psychic vitality. To these Freudian delineations, two more perspectives were later added. These included the genetic perspective which suggested that all adult emotion, thought, and behaviour is traceable to its primordial form in childhood, and the adaptive perspective which proposed that all human behaviour, including maladaptive behaviour, serves a useful purpose for the individual.

    Together these five perspectives of metapsychology (dynamic, topographic, economic, genetic, and adaptive) and the later-evolved list of the mind’s defensive operations (e.g. repression, projection, rationalisation, undoing, negation, splitting) form the touchstone of psychoanalytic theory and its most enduring and universally valid aspect. Psychoanalytic study of fiction, poetry, and biography from all over the world, as well as clinical work with immigrant patients from diverse national and ethnic origins convincingly demonstrated that Freudian metapsychology is as useful in understanding the Eastern mind as it is for understanding the Western mind. The same universality does not characterise the other contributions of psychoanalysis, as the following discourse will demonstrate.

    Personality development

    Freud and his early followers (especially Karl Abraham, Sandor Ferenczi, and Otto Fenichel) proposed a highly-specific view of how a psychically inchoate infant gradually evolves into a well-functioning adult with a sense of autonomy, stability, and personal agency. Tipping their hats to the contributions of heredity, they focussed upon the role epigenetic unfolding of infantile bodily needs (e.g. oral, anal, phallic) played in shaping the ways of relating to parents and the important figures of childhood. Somatic tensions propelled the mind to seek relief and the environment’s response to these efforts governed the levels of comfort entitlement, activity, and psychic agency would evolve. The mind’s working was based upon somatic prototypes (‘the ego is first and foremost a bodily ego’). Gender difference was crucial and, in early psychoanalytic theory, the female child was doomed since she possessed an ‘inferior organ’ (hence, ‘penis envy’). Since she did not have much to lose to begin with, she had little need to develop moral constraints. Men, who had to face the threat of castration, were superior in matters of ethics and thoughtful judgement. Freud declared that ‘anatomy is destiny’. And, though he did acknowledge the powerful role of the child’s early relationship with his or her mother, his attention remained focused upon the psychic consequences of the triangular, oedipal configuration of the family. Exposure to ‘primal scene’ (parental sexual intercourse) was deemed highly traumatic and oedipal strivings contributed heavily to the evolution of subsequent character traits.

    This ‘classical’ model of development was greatly tempered by the corrective influence of feminism and infant-observation data. Prominent analytic thinkers after Freud (e.g. Melanie Klein, John Bowlby, Donald Winnicott, Ronald Fairbairn, and Margaret Mahler, to name a few) brought to fore the profound formative influence of the early mother-child relationship, underscoring the dialectic between the baby’s genetically-received, hard-wired affecto-motor propensities (‘temperament’) and the maternal responsiveness to the child. Attachment and separation were now accorded greater importance than oedipal desire and castration in the formation of personality. The primacy of body no longer occupied centre stage; relationality did. And, the unblinking phallocentrism of Freudian theory was discarded; women could be seen to possess different forms and expression of morality and ethics but were not lesser than men in this regard. Penis envy was no longer considered ubiquitous; it arose only in families where the mother was devalued and the father and brother were exalted. Another significant development was Erik Erikson’s proposal that the challenges faced and rewards reaped by the growing ego emanate not only from the individual’s relationship to his or her family but also from the larger, communal (e.g. school, workplace) realm. Society at large was no longer to be viewed as mere externalisation of intrapsychic structures; it existed de novo and exerted influence on the growing personality.

    UnUnquestioned Western psychological hegenomy

    While salutary, these conceptual ‘upgrades’ still left the Eurocentrism of psychoanalytic theory intact. All theoreticians were white and of European extraction. All patients (and observed children) from whom these developmental hypotheses were evolved were white and of European extraction. It was a closed system that subtly, and not so subtly, implied an Anglo-Saxon and Judaeo-Christian hegemony over the mental development of the peoples of colour, and of the Eastern parts of the world. White, European, North American, Christian and Jewish psychoanalysts declared that certain ‘developmental lines’ were normal and felt those to be valid for, say, Japanese, or Iraqi, or Sudanese children as well. That this could hardly be true, given vastly different family constellations, living conditions, regional folklore, cultural traditions, and religious beliefs was not recognised or, at least, not recognised for a very long time.

    To be sure, the two main developmental tasks of childhood delineated by psychoanalysis (i.e. renunciation of infantile omnipotence and establishment of incest barrier) are important for personality formation across regional, racial, and religious boundaries. However, beyond this point, significant differences exist. The quip by Jennifer Bonovitz, a North American child analyst, asking what would be the shape of the childhood separation-individuation theory had its originator, the Hungarian–born Margaret Mahler, moved to Japan instead of the United States after the Holocaust captures the essence of the issues that occupy this conceptual terrain. All sorts of questions abound. How psychologically separate must an individual become from his parents in order to be considered normal? What degrees of psychically merged states are ‘permissible’ in mental health? How much concern about the family, the elders, and, indeed, even the community-at-large, in making important life decisions is normal? Do ‘transitional objects’ (e.g. a cuddly teddy bear, a soft blanket) that a Western child gets attached to during the second-third year of life reflect normal phase-specific development or are they culture-specific artefacts of societies where children are pushed too early to become autonomous? What is the normal duration of breast-feeding? How much skin-to-skin contact with parents is good for a growing child? Is the psychic structure evolved in a nuclear family akin to that evolved in a large multigenerational family? What happens to the intrigue about the parental bedroom in societies where there is no such entity and children and adults sleep in the same room? Is the Oedipus complex a universal constellation? How graphic must the sexual imagery of oedipal desire be? Does Freudian castration anxiety acquire greater strength among Muslims, who are often circumcised at the peak of the oedipal phase (i.e. four, five years of age), and does it extinguish among the Hindus who are never circumcised? Must adolescence be full of turmoil? And so on and so forth.

    The good news is that literature is beginning to accumulate on such questions and the early colonialism of psychoanalytic thinking is thawing. The Japanese concepts of ‘amae’ and ‘don’t look taboo’ (proposed by Takeo Doi and Osamu Kitayama, respectively), the Chinese ‘filial piety complex’ (outlined by Ming Dong Gu), and the Indian ‘maternal enthralment’ and ‘Sita Shakti’, ‘Trishanku complex’ (delineated by Sudhir Kakar, Jaswant Guzder, and Shailesh Kapadia, respectively) are among the Eastern newcomers to the chambers of the psychoanalytic lexicon. And the rising interest in psychoanalysis in Turkey and Iran is bound to have its own conceptual yield. Salman Akhtar’s edited volume, The Crescent and the Couch, has already mapped out some cross-currents between Islam and psychoanalysis. The writings of Aisha Abbassi (a female Pakistani-American analyst) and Yasser Ad-Dab’bagh (the only Saudi Arabian-born psychoanalyst in the world) have taken further steps in such theory-building. Much more, however, is warranted to help psychoanalytic developmental theory arrive at a truly universal status.

    Therapeutic technique

    Freud’s declaration that ‘hysterics suffer from reminiscences’ epitomised the basic assumption of psychoanalysis regarding the nature of psychopathology. Essentially, all mental anguish was seen to emanate from the experiences, fantasies, and unresolved conflicts of childhood. Adult suffering was anachronistic and constituted a disguised and rationalised expression of the intrapsychic war between prohibited wishes and moral injunctions against them. To top it all, most psychopathology resulted from ‘fixation’ upon the childhood Oedipus complex, though, in all fairness, it should be acknowledged that the possibility that actual traumatic events could underlie adult problems was also given some space. Analysts who came after Freud and focussed upon the ‘pre-oedipal’ period of development added that disrupted attachment and the subsequent pessimism, mistrust, hunger, anger, and greed play a more significant role in the anguished psychological life of adults.

    The two etiological perspectives impacted upon the ameliorative methods that were evolved to deal with psychopathology. The method Freud proposed and which was followed without question by at least two generations of psychoanalysts rested upon the technical tripod of anonymity, abstinence, and neutrality. The psychoanalyst did not reveal himself and merely acted like a mirror, reflecting his patient’s inner goings-on to himself (‘anonymity’). He did not gratify the patient’s demand for overt or covert erotic indulgences since doing so would provide substitute pleasures and impede the resolution of the patient’s conflicts by interpretation (‘abstinence’). And the analyst adopted a non-judgemental stance and stood equidistant from the patient’s desires, morality, and reality (‘neutrality’). He merely facilitated the patient’s ‘free-association’ (uninhibited and uncensored flow of thought and verbalisation), pointed out resistances to it, and then interpreted the meanings of what the patient was saying, linking it to feelings and fantasies toward the analyst (‘transference’) which were revivals of childhood formations. This helped the patient gain ‘insight’. He or she could now live a life free of childhood-derived conflicts. This austere psychoanalytic therapeutic was later ‘softened’ by the addition of warmer, emotionally-responsive, bi-directional, and relational interventions. All this work was, however, based upon (mostly) white Western analysts treating (mostly) white Western patients.

    How applicable is this methodology to regions of the world where the patient might not possess a separate, self-observing self and might have a communally-grounded sense of identity that overrides personal separateness? Alan Roland’s concept of the ‘familial self’ among Indians is a case in point here. Also pertinent are Irmgard Dettbarn’s (a German analyst who has worked for a long time in China) observations on Asian collectivism and her statement that the word ‘I’ does not function the same way in Chinese as it does in the Indo-Germanic language. Calling it a ‘culture of curves’, Dettbarn emphasises that the direct and open communication typical of Western patients is not to be found among the Chinese, who talk in circuitous and indirect ways. Mook Sook Lee emphasises the heightened role of non-verbal communication in the Korean clinical context and how the family-centred nature of Korean culture can often preclude important disclosures by the patient to the therapist. And Sudhir Kakar, the pre-eminent psychoanalyst of India, has noted that in that country the humane interest and respectful empathy of the analyst needs a more active and open expression. Kakar also states that the Indian analyst has to be more didactic, at least in the early phases of treatment, to generate and sustain the ‘biographical introspection’ that is the cardinal requirement from the analysand and, generally speaking, not a characteristic of the ordinary Indian mind.

    Nuanced modifications of therapeutic technique, with greater inclination towards relational and intersubjective approaches, therefore seem indicated for the practice of clinical psychoanalysis in the non-Western world. A caveat must be entered, though: no data exists about conducting analytic treatment in African and Arabic nations. Given the fact that psychoanalysis has now existed for over one hundred and fifteen years, this geopolitical negation is truly incredible. When and if such information becomes available, the guardians of psychoanalytic technique might have to convene and face new challenges.

    Culture and civilisation

    Freud’s contributions to the understanding of culture were wide-ranging. He delineated the process by which idiosyncratic and even hideous elements of subjectivity are transformed into creative writing. He highlighted the dialectic between civilisation and loss of man’s innate, animal nature due to its exile into the unconscious; repression produced culture and culture instigated repression. Freud also speculated about the inevitability, if not necessity, of war, and traced it to aggression inherent in man’s nature. And, most importantly, he challenged religious belief.

    Scientific positivism of the early twentieth century provided a receptive crucible for Freud’s debunking of God. He had given voice to what was brewing in the minds of Western intelligentsia. The unspeakable atrocities committed in the name of religious nationalism in Europe ‘confirmed’ that ethnocentrism and its conceptual twin, religious belief, were dangerous commodities. They led to intoxication with in-group superiority and laid the groundwork for oppression of the Other and for cruelty and genocide. Early European psychoanalysts, themselves the victims of prejudice, wholeheartedly followed the ray of hope offered by Freud’s declaration that religion was a hoax and science would sooner or later assure the dominance of rationality in the conduct of interpersonal and communal affairs. Atheism and psychoanalysis became inseparable. God was declared to be a man-made fantasy that perpetuated child-like dependency on external figures and acted as a salve against the disillusionment in one’s own and, later, in one’s father’s assumed omnipotence. Freud insisted that God was an illusion the need for which would disappear as science provides more answers to nature’s mysteries and as man acquires cognitive and material armamentarium to vanquish his infantile dependency. This perspective was adopted by the subsequent analysts who began to consider any and all religious belief contrary to mental health.

    Gradually, however, cracks in the armour of such theory began to show. The complete neglect of mother in Freud’s formulation of God was noted by some psychoanalysts. Others wondered if a mind solely governed by rationality would actually be healthy. Don’t human beings need areas of faith and belief, even if these might be illusory? How could one play if the real and unreal did not coexist? If so, like literature, games, love, and creativity in general, religious belief would belong in this ambiguous area of man’s sensibility. Viewed from this vantage point, God turns out to be a majestic poem. Moreover, the God Freud was railing against was the Judaeo-Christian paternal figure that resided high above in the skies and was mostly scary and punitive. Freud’s God, unlike the god(s) of Hindus, for instance, could not be a friend, a lover, a woman, child, or an animal. Even more remote from Freud’s conceptualisation was the possibility of an utterly de-anthropomorphised view of God as omnipresent knowledge and order that is spread over the universe like a soft blanket over a sleeping baby. Among the post-Freudian psychoanalysts, Wilfred Bion came closest to this perspective on religious belief in some of his proposals.

    This tension between Freudian psychology and religion is of importance in transporting psychoanalytic thinking to regions of the world where belief in God is widespread. That psychoanalysis has started taking this potential conundrum into account is evident by the publication of a recent volume in which ten distinguished psychoanalysts have assessed Freud’s book on religion, The Future of an Illusion, and debated his derision of man’s need for God. It is becoming evident that the psychoanalytic interest in religion has shifted from the psychological origins of belief in God to the psychological functions of such a conviction. Moreover, both atheism and theism are seen to be consonant with mental illness (if the former is emanating from a pervasive cynicism and if the latter is serving the sole purpose of paranoid narcissism), as well as with mental health (if the former is based upon a loving identification with atheist parents and if the latter inculcates humility, generosity, and reparative gratitude toward the world). Such mellowing of Freud’s ardent stance against religious belief would go a long way in judicious accommodations between the cultures of the East and the depth-psychology of the West.


    This wide-ranging discourse has tackled the corpus of Freud’s work (and that of subsequent psychoanalytic ‘greats’) under four headings, namely: metapsychology, personality development, therapeutic technique, and cultural speculations. Adopting both ‘in-discipline’ and ‘out-of-discipline’ vantage points, the discourse had sought to assess the extent to which psychoanalytic ideas are universally valid and applicable. Accommodating the tension between the fundamentally similar nature of man across the world and the differing existential narratives of East and West, the essay has concluded that while Freudian metapsychology has a universal validity, the developmental notions and therapeutic methodology of psychoanalysis are Euro-centric and in need of judicious modifications if they are to be applied to the non-Western world. Freud’s speculations about religion would be found even more alien, if not offensive, by large swathes of the population of Asia and Africa. It is therefore encouraging to see that Freud’s sceptical reductionism vis-à-vis God’s existence has mushroomed into theoretical notions of much larger scope.

    To sum up, then, psychoanalysis does have much to offer the Eastern world and can serve as a beacon of light for the burgeoning individualism of mind there. However, it must not be overlooked that the Eastern world also has much to offer psychoanalysis, and inclusion of its traditions, philosophies and wisdom can only enrich the discipline Sigmund Freud originated at the dawn of the twentieth century. A recent book, entitled Psychoanalysis in Asia, edited by Alf Gerlach, Maria Teresa Savio Hooke and Sverre Varvin, with contributions from Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and South Korean analysts, gives convincing testimony to this assertion.

    Salman Akhtar is Professor of Psychiatry at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. Among his numerous publications is the book The Crescent and the Couch, which seeks to map out crosscurrents between Islam and psychoanalysis.

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    November 2014
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