Klein Personal Experiences and Psychoanalytic Interpretation Part1

As an undergraduate in a philosophy of science class the scientific status of psychoanalysis was discussed on a number of occasions. In particular we discussed Popper’s claim that psychoanalysis was pseudo scientific because it was in principle unfalisifiable. My teacher Brian Garvey correctly noted that for all of Popper’s attacks on psychoanalysis Popper never actually cites actual psychoanalytic texts, nor does he closely analyse Freud’s arguments, and engage with the clinical material in the form of case studies psychoanalysts published. Popper contents himself with anecdotal reports from conversations he had with people like Adler to motivate his criticisms of psychoanalysis.

In a series of blog posts I have evaluated the evidence for various different psychoanalytic claims and have shown that modern psychoanalysis is a properly scientific discipline. I have discussed meta-analysis that show that psychoanalysis has greater clinical success than its other therapeutic rivals. I have also shown that attempts to integrate neuroscience and developmental psychology have helped the discipline improve and develop as we learn more about the world. Nonetheless there are other aspects of psychoanalytic theory that I don’t think stand up to critical scrutiny. In previous blog-posts I have criticised the scientific status of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. In this post I will turn my critical gaze towards the claims of Melanie Klein. My focus will be on her interpretation of the behaviour of children. I will argue that her claims are too unconstrained by the data of experience. Her posits while consistent with the child’s behaviour are entirely lacking in plausibility or empirical support and so should be rejected in favour of simpler interpretations of the child’s behaviour.

In the past when I have criticised the theoretical positions of either Lacan, Klein or their followers I have been chastised on the grounds that the empirical evidence suggests that psychotherapy whether Kleinian or Lacanian is equally effective as treatment. People have misinterpreted my claims as indicating that I think that a therapist who learns a lot of neuroscience will automatically be a better therapist. To be clear from the outset I do not believe any such thing. One of the most aspects of the psychoanalytic encounter is the relationship between the analyst and the analysand. When an analyst is dealing with an analysand they are dealing with them as a person. A massive part of the job involves listening to others in an emphatic manner. The analyst in training has to undergo hours of personal analysis, he has to train in analysing other people, and these skills are shaped and honed over years of practice through talking and listening to people in practice for hours on end day in and day out. These skills, like any other skill e.g. playing football or painting cannot be reduced to propositional knowledge. So for this reason I should emphasise that criticisms of people like Klein etc are not criticisms of their competency as an analyst but theoretical criticisms of their meta-psychological theories.

One of the replies often given to the claim that one is focusing on meta-psychology is: ‘why bother tinkering with well established psychoanalytic theories if it makes little practical difference to clinical practice?’ My hope is that psychoanalysis can develop and improve by integrating itself with sciences like neuroscience, and developmental psychology which study overlapping areas of research. Again though it is important to emphasise that with psychoanalysis things are driven by therapeutic driven practice, and not just theory and observations. Thus Mark Solms correctly notes:

Although we claim that neuroscience has a lot to offer psychoanalysis methodologically, we do not believe that neuroscientific experiments must be the final court of appeal for theoretical work in psychoanalysis, as some critics of Neuropsychoanalysis think we do” (From the Couch to the Lab p. 51)

I am not defending Neuropsychoanalysis in this blog-post but I share Solms sentiment; if I argue that some claim of Klein’s is not supported by findings in developmental psychology, or neuroscience this is not intended as a refutation of the clinical theory (which stands or falls on pragmatic success). Rather I am suggesting that if empirical evidence and logical analysis points to evidential shortfalls in a particular theory, analysts need to ask themselves whether these areas that are not supported by any empirical data outside of the analytic setting; are necessary to their clinical practice, and if they are not then the beliefs need to be rescinded. On the other hand if some theoretical construct in psychoanalysis is considered vital despite having no evidence for it scientifically and plenty of evidence against it, then we need to analyse what the evidence for it is within clinical practice and how other psychoanalytic approaches manage equally successfully without this theoretical construct. Overall the aim is to construct as accurate a model of the mind as possible and this will involve rescinding beliefs in controversial theoretical postulates that are neither necessary for clinical practice nor supported by empirical data.

When dealing with Klein I will be concerned with her views on the mental life of infants. I will first discuss the methodology with which she uses to understand the mental life of children. Klein used children’s play and her interpretation of their play as a way of understanding the mental life of children. For Klein play in children was similar to free association in adults, she also believed that children like adults could develop transference neurosis (Bronstein ‘Technique and Interpretation in Klein’ p.37). She provided her children with toys such as ‘pencils, wooden men and women, carriages, dogs, as well as a wash basin with running water, spoons vessels etc (ibid p.37). She then proceeded to interpret the children’s play with the toys as evidence for the unconscious phantasies of children[1]. It was in the context of her observations of child play that she came up with her hypothesis of child unconscious Phantasy.

Nonetheless while Klein practice seems a reasonable way about drawing inferences about the mental life of the infant. Her claims about what children’s unconscious phantasies are which she derived from her clinical practice seem frankly ludicrous, and one finds oneself in stunned disbelief when reading them. Here are some quotes from her book ‘The Psychology of Children’ which show the type of phantasies she attributed to children:

Here is another game which shows clearly that to Erna’s unconscious the head had the meaning of the penis: a toy man wanted to get into a car and stuck his head into the window, where upon the car said to him ‘better come right inside!’ The car stood for the mother inviting her father to have coitus with her.” ( Klein ‘The Psychology of Children p. 36)

“Erna used very often to play at being mother. I was to be the child, and one of my greatest faults was thumb-sucking. The first thing which I was supposed to put into my mouth was an engine. She had already much admired its gilded lamps saying, ‘They are so lovely, all red and burning’, and at once put them in her mouth and sucked them. They stood to her for her mother’s breast and her father’s penis.” (ibid p. 37)

“The beautifully cut-patterns, for instance representing a table cloth, stood for her parent’ genitals, or the body of her mother restored from the destruction which in Phantasy she had previously inflicted on them” (ibid p.38)

“Once instead of the father, a magician came along. He knocked one child on the anus and then on the head with a stick, and as he did so a yellowish fluid poured out of the magic wand. On another occasion the child – a quite little one this time- was given a powder to take which was ‘red and white mixed together. This treatment made the little child clean, and it was suddenly able to talk and became as clever as its mother. The magician stood for the penis and knocking with the stick meant coitus. The fluid and the powder represented urine, faeces, semen and blood, all of which according to Erna’s Phantasies her mother put in herself during copulation through her mouth, anus and genitals.” (ibid p. 38)

“Erna’s analysis too, demonstrated that theatres and performances of all kinds symbolised coitus between the parents.” (ibid p. 39)


Now it is easy to pick quotes out of context to make anyone look a bit nutty but I can assure the reader that Klein used this type of analysis throughout her writings without giving too much away interms of why she was interpreting children this way. In her defence she was writing for analysts who shared theoretical assumptions with her so her arguments would have been condensed because of her intended audience. Possibly the best expositor of Klein’s views was Susan Isaacs her paper ‘On the Nature and Function of Unconscious Phantasy’ is still considered to be the best summary of the nature of Phantasy. Isaacs argues that there are three main methodological rules of thumb that are important when analysing a child. (1) Attention to detail (2) Observation of context (3) Study of Genetic continuity.

She correctly notes that understanding of speech proceeds the use of speech (with really intelligent children understanding of speech can proceed language use by up to a year.) She argues that children from 8 weeks onwards are distressed by strange faces and reassured by familiar faces. She notes that the surprise that children show to change in stimuli indicate that preverbal infants form judgements, have expectations etc. However despite her confidence a cursory consideration of alternative behavioural explanations shows that her claims are wildly over confident She cites Hazlitt (1933) to show that children understand logical relations (identity, generalisation), long before he can express them in words. She asks the question are phantasies active in children from the time their impulses arrive or are they only retrospectively apparent after the child develops the linguistic ability to put them into words. She says that the phantasies are active along with the impulses with which they arrive. Her emphasis on developmental continuity as opposed to jumps cognitive capacities makes her think that we are justified in applying the same analytic interpretative stance towards young children as we are to adults. But of course this assumption means that if one is not impressed by the evidence for psychoanalytic interpretation of adults then one will not be impressed by psychoanalytic interpretation of children. Over all I would argue that because of her controversial assumptions Isaacs does not provide much empirical support for Klein.


In my readings of Melanie Klein and the phantasies she attributes to young children I find myself thinking that she was a deeply disturbed person projecting her own sick ideas on to the infant. I have yet to come across any evidence that I feel supports her conjectures, from an evolutionary perspective there seems to be no reason why a child would have such sick phantasies about their care takers, neither is there any neurological or developmental data that supports her claims. When I bring up this point people usually point that the evidence comes from the clinical encounter. That listening to patients lends support to psychoanalytic conjectures about the experiences of the clinical infant as described by Klein. This puts me at an impasse; firstly psychoanalysts of equal experience interms of analysing their patients do not all agree on the nature of the early experiences of the ‘clinical infant’ so years of clinical experience doesn’t guarantee that one will end up believing Klein’s theoretical posits. Secondly I am not psychoanalyst myself. So I do not have the years of clinical practice that psychoanalysts have so I am not in a position to judge the validity of the Kleinian views on infant phantasies. But if we accept the view that only psychoanalysts are fit to judge the evidence for psychoanalytic theories then the theory becomes in effect irrefutable by outsiders and insiders probably won’t be too motivated to refute their own theory. If we imagine a similar situation holding with religion or Reki healing where outsiders are given no epistemic authority to criticise it then we are in a sad situation where even the most ridiculous theories will be irrefutable by public criterion. Since psychoanalysts unlike ReIki Healers and Religious nuts claim to be an empirical discipline I presume no respectable psychoanalyst would argue that the evidence or against the discipline can only be tackled by practitioners. So I think the argument that a person cannot criticise psychoanalysis because he doesn’t have clinical experience breaks down in two ways. (1) Theorists with equal amounts of clinical practices often hold wildly different theories about early experiences of the infant and (2) If we accept the fact that psychoanalysis is a closed epistemic community that cannot be judged from the outside why not do the same thing with religions or new age medicine?

So I think that while a psychoanalyst can indeed claim special skills because of years of experience in clinical practice this fact cannot be used as a refutation of critics without this experience. The burden of proof lies with the psychoanalyst to communicate his findings to critics in as clear a manner as possible. There are however some ways that critics can meet psychoanalysts halfway; Freud emphasised that the most important aspect of an analysts training was clinical experience by which he meant analysing people and undergoing analysis oneself. Now obviously if one is not a practicing analyst one cannot gain clinical experience as an analyst (the best substitute is reading case studies of actual clinical practice), however one can undergo analysis. This process will give one an understanding of analysis from within and an experience of the analytic process and its effects on one. Having undergone psychoanalysis for an anxiety disorder I can attest to both the usefulness of the experience and how one learns about the process in a way that simply reading books will not mimic (Obviously my limited experiences of being an analysand do not in any way compare with the years of clinical practice psychoanalysts have). However despite my experiences in analysis and my readings of clinical studies I still find Klein’s analysis wildly far-fetched. It is for this reason that I think the studies Robert M Young’s contribution to the ‘Lacan-Klein dialogues’ was potential gateway to understanding Klein. He offered the following advice:

“I offer these reports, somewhat shyly, as a way of inviting you to make similar searches of your memories to glimpse the tips of the icebergs of your own phantasies and psychotic anxieties. They are my version of what Klein calls ‘a cave of dangerous monsters’. My general point is that if you ask the question, ‘What is a psychotic anxiety when it’s at home and not in the pages of an implausible and nearly unfathomable text by Melanie Klein?’, you’ll be less sceptical if you interrogate the fringes of your own memories and distressing experiences and, of course your dreams” (Phantasy and Psychotic Anxieties’ Robert M Young p.71)

Upon reading these lines I was reminded of why I went into analysis in the first place. I entered into analysis because of a severe anxiety problem. A problem which I underwent psychoanalysis to overcome (I cut the analysis short for financial reasons) and I am medicated to control the anxiety by Lexaphro. Since undergoing the analysis and thinking about my anxiety I have realised that it was an ongoing problem which goes back a long time in my personal history. So Young as offered me an inside track to test Klein’s theories from a personal experience of analysis. Obviously any claims I make based on my own anxieties have virtually no generality but since they may help me understand Klein in my next blog post I intend to analyse my personal anxiety problems to see if they can be made sense of in a Kleinian fashion. This will involve detailed phenomenological descriptions of my anxieties and an attempt to relate them to Kleinian psychology.

[1] A similar technique is used to analyse non-verbal people with Intellectual disabilities; see for example the work of Melanie Sinason in her ‘Mental Handicap and The Human Condition’.


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