Cybernetics - Dynamic Psychology

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Warren S. McCulloch at home, formulating his critique of psychoanalysis


If Gregory Bateson’s critique of Freudianism, in Communication: The Social Matrix of Society, is comprehensive, Warren S. McCulloch’s is savage. Delivered in the same year as the publication of Bateson and Ruesch’s Communication, The Social Matrix of Psychiatry, McCulloch’s lecture “The Past of a Delusion” (1951) represents an evisceration of the theories of Sigmund Freud and systematically dismantles the presumptions and practices of Freudianism. In its extremity, it represents the general antipathy many of the “hard science” cyberneticians at the Macy Conferences of Cybernetics (1946-53) felt toward psychoanalysis.[1]

The title of McCulloch’s lecture is a play on Freud’s “The Future of an Illusion” (1927) which is Freud’s examination of the origins of religion. McCulloch takes Freud’s psychoanalysis itself to be a form of metaphysics, bound to self-substantiating myths and ungrounded hypothesis. Like Bateson, Craik, and Grey Walter, McCulloch champions the methods of Claude Bernard’s Experimental Medicine, in which hypothesis of any given proposition is backed by experimentation. In this scheme a hypothesis holds until such time as it is falsified. In McCulloch’s reading, there is therefore no scientific proof, as such, because any scientific proposition is in abeyance to a future refutation. No such checks and balances are apparent in Freudian psychoanalysis. McCulloch paints a picture of Freud as someone who absorbed the ideas from Eduard von Hartmann’s Philosophy of The Unconscious: Speculative Results According to the Induction Method of the Physical Sciences (1869) in a garbled and corrupted fashion; as it was filtered by Freud’s teacher Brücke and Freud’s collaborator Breur. McCulloch points out that the repression and resurgence of ideas rising into the unconscious appeared well in advance of Freud and were well known in Freud’s circle. These notions themselves are based on a flawed understanding of the role of entropy in a psychic system. In McCulloch’s eyes Freud is both a charlatan and a fool.[2]

For McCulloch the modern concept of the unconscious begins with Leibniz, who understood it to be an infinitesimal “petite perception, a sort of calculus of Knowledge”[3] These “petite perceptions” are judgements made between a series of entities which vary only slightly – three slightly different weights for instance. Because they are very close to each other one becomes aware of the weight of one only in relation to the other two. Sensing the weight of the first is unconscious, but one becomes conscious after sensing the other two. In introspection such sensations are translated as perceptions, in this case they are perceived in the time and space of sensing. Kant developed this idea, these unconscious perceptions become forms of sensation which extend to basic purposes and valued judgement. In this way, conscious action emerges from unconscious stimulus. Unsurprisingly, McCulloch cites Samuel Butler as proponent of this idea. In McCulloch’s reading, our understanding of the passage from the unconscious though to the conscious was transformed by German Metaphysical Idealism, which is bound to the discourse of evolution, in which the discourse of knowledge is a development – adaptation and change – within history. (In the coming chapters we will see that this dialectical turn is precisely identified by Lacan in Seminar II when discussing Freud’s psychodynamics).

McCulloch identifies the idealist’s uncoupling of knowledge from matter as a monumental epistemological blunder. For McCulloch, the three totalising systems of the age, Laissez Faire capitalism, dialectical materialism, and psychoanalysis are predicated on a misguided and idealised faith in “matter”. This faith is characterised by various entropic forms of repression: repression of the natural operations of markets (Adam Smith), repression of the proletariat (Karl Marx), and repression of desire (Sigmund Freud). In McCulloch’s reading of these three idealistic world-views “matter is the real thing that carries the determinism of their faith”. For McCulloch speaking in the register of a discourse theorist, all three represent the late flowering of German Metaphysical Idealism in which ideas (the invisible hand, the inevitable unfolding of history [dialectical materialism], the operations of id, ego, and superego) take precedence over actions and events which occupy actual time and space – actions which can be tested against hypothesis through scientific experimentation. McCulloch’s most egregious idealist is Sigmund Freud, who makes a fundamental mistake in understanding psychic energy as a substance. This is in contrast to Leibniz and Butler, for whom the unconscious is a ratio within a system of relations. For McCulloch, the idealism underlying Freud’s approach, bound to the nineteenth-century thermodynamic model, is transcended by the insights of cybernetics.

“The notions that we need to guide this research are just forming now in brains like Wiener’s (call it cybernetics if you must but get the idea first) and in those many youngsters who design the great high-speed computers. Most of them are trained in symbolic logic, led by Bertrand Russell. From such men come the measure of information and the means for its preservation and transmission.” [4]

Lawrence Kubie


Gregory Bateson approaches Freud from a perspective close to McCulloch (who was the writer most cited by Bateson). For Bateson, as one of the conveners of the Macy Conferences, the stakes were precisely that "information" and "negative entropy" could now be regarded as synonymous. Their equivalence “united the natural and social sciences” and necessitated a re-evaluation of knowledge across the natural and social sciences.

The discipline of psychoanalysis – which was positioned on the fault line between the "natural and social science" – had been a heated area of debate within the Macy conferences. Lawrence Kubie was its strongest defender and its most astute critic.[5] Kubie had moved from the practice of neurophysiology in the 1920s to that of psychoanalysis in the 1930s. It was in the 30s that he conceived 'brain waves' as cyclical – moving along pathways which ultimately return them to their starting point. McCulloch and Pitts would later pick this up and theorize such loops as organized by logical calculus, this would be the foundation of the McCulloch-Pitts model of neural activity. By 1941 – now a practicing psychoanalyst – Kubie likened such circuits to repetition compulsion. Kubie presented several papers at Macy and the hard scientists challenged his position, believing the Freudian notion of the unconscious to be unscientific (a position which, in fact, Kubie shared). It is no surprise, given the vehemence of “The Past of a Delusion”, that Warren McCulloch was particularly critical, regarding any data gathered in the context of psychoanalytical research as ultimately 'self-justifying' rather than grounded on experimentation or objective observation – which was the practice of the more empirical neurophysiology. Wiener, on the other hand, thought that psychoanalysis needed to be re-framed in cybernetic terms. This was a task that both Gregory Bateson and Jacques Lacan would undertake in the early 1950s.

Kubie’s position between the practices of neurophysiology and psychoanalysis afforded him a subtle perspective of both positions. His 1947 paper The Fallacious Use of Quantitative Concepts in Dynamic Psychology cautions against understanding Freudian dynamics as anything more than a loose metaphor – and as an increasingly less helpful metaphor as the age of cybernetics progressed. This paper, and Kubie’s book The Nature of Psychotherapy (1943) were influential on Bateson’s own cybernetic analysis of psychoanalysis.

Kubie’s The Fallacious Use of Quantitative Concepts in Dynamic Psychology (1947)[6] opens with a long quote from Freud’s The Unconscious (1915), citing five “overlapping” and “circular assumptions” about the role of energy and economy in Freud’s conception of Dynamic Psychology. It is a mistake, offers Kubie, to seek an explanation of psychological phenomena through quantitative variables. The tendency to accord components of human psychology with values of “bigger”, “smaller”, “stronger”, more highly charged with “energy” or more prone to “degradation” are at risk of being mistaken for something more than metaphor. Kubie points out that, “the concept of quantitative variables is drawn from other sciences, and we have no right to assume a priori that they play an equally determining role in psychology; and certainly we cannot depend solely on quantity variables to make a system of psychological theory 'dynamic'.”

With characteristic subtlety Kubie goes beyond the simple issue of energetics in relation to dynamic psychology and gets to the desire at the centre of the discourse, which calls for reflection on the part of cyberneticians as well as Freudian psychoanalysts:

“Why is it that the hypothesis of quantitative variables seems to hold such a special fascination for us all? This is not on rational grounds alone but on the basis of a strong emotional bias buttressed by a conviction that a science is not mature until it can count.” To talk of quantitative variations “gives us a feeling of scientific maturity which may in fact be premature and illusory.”[7]

At the Macy conferences Kubie would be questioned on the inability of psychoanalysis to provide quantifiable data. Against which Kubie would take the position that if the discourse of psychoanalysis is to prevail in the post-cybernetic era it will have to transcend the energetic question – it is a reality with which both cyberneticians and psychoanalysts will have to come to terms.[8] In this context the concept of dynamic psychology within the context of the cybernetic discourse is hanged for a sheep and a lamb as (a) it is misplaced to accord quantitively measurable values to psychological phenomena and (b) if such quantitively measurable values were supplied they would be inadmissible. They would not in either case be a part of a “science that can count”. Here Kubie focuses on the psychology within his own discourse. Kubie understood his own role was to air the complexities of the issue as he stood at an intersection of the ‘hard science’ cyberneticians and the social scientists who understood the need to adapt their discourse to the technical standards of the day. At the 1952 Macy conference Kubie likened himself to the naturalist who brings news of human behavior to the experimentalists and the mathematicians. The experimentalists and the mathematicians want such phenomena to be simple so they can be modeled in the laboratory. For Kubie all psychological phenomena are “the results of the interplay of many conflicting intrapsychic forces. Consequently, any rearrangement of these forces can alter the pattern of the psychological phenomena and can release new forms of overt behavior, without any increases or decreases of hypothetical charges of energy.”

Kubie was clear that his job was to insist on the complexity of the phenomena he presented. For Kubie to seek legitimacy for psychoanalysis on the basis of its ability to match the technical standards of cybernetics does an injustice to psychoanalysis as it emerged into the post-cybernetic period.

I have outlined that the issue of Freud’s psychodynamics was at the centre of cybernetic discourse on psychiatry and psychoanalysis at the Macy conferences. Bateson, McCulloch and Kubie each took a different perspective on Freud’s application of the entropic model. In the next chapter I will consider how the cybernetic discourse managed the migration to France and how Jacques Lacan came to terms with the challenges presented by the emerging disciplines of cybernetics and information theory. I will give particular attention to the effect on Freudian psychoanalysis in the light of new thinking on the topics of homeostasis and negative entropy. I will approach this as Lacan did, via the uneasy course charted by a cybernetic creature whose errant and unpredictable behaviour provided an eloquent expression of negative entropy – Grey Walter’s cybernetic tortoise.

  1. Some of these exchanges are transcribed in Cybernetics| Kybernetik:The Macy-Conferences 1946-1953,Volume 1 Transactions. Edited by Claus Pias: Diaphanes 2004;
  2. McCulloch, Warren S. Embodiments of Mind, The Past is a Delusion 276-295
  3. McCulloch, Warren S. Embodiments of Mind, The Past is a Delusion 294
  4. McCulloch, Warren S. Embodiments of Mind, The Past is a Delusion 291
  5. Lawrence S. Kubie delivered the following papers at the Macy conferences:
    The Neurotic Potential and Human Adaptation (1949) (p.66)
    The Relationship of Symbolic Function in Language Formation and in Neurosis (1950) (p307)
    The Place of Emotions in the Feedback Concept (1950) p 575
    Body Symbolization and Development of Language (1950) p 326
    Communication Between Sane and Insane: Hypnosis (1951) p 416
    The Place of Emotions in the Feedback Concept (1951) p 575
    In: Cybernetics | Kybernetik: The Macy-Conferences 1946-1953, Volume 1 Transactions. Edited by Claus Pias: Diaphanes 2004; Cybernetics | Kybernetik: The Macy-Conferences 1946-1953, Volume II, Essays and Documents. Edited by Claus Pias: Diaphanes 2004
  6. Kubie, Lawrence S. (1947) The Fallacious Use of Quantitative Concepts in Dynamic Psychology, The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 1947, 507-518
  7. Kubie, Lawrence S. (1947) The Fallacious Use of Quantitative Concepts in Dynamic Psychology, The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 1947, 507-518
  8. Cybernetics| Kybernetik: The Macy-Conferences 1946-1953, Volume 1 Transactions. Edited by Claus Pias: Diaphanes 2004