After this strongly rationalist start however, particularly with the abandonment of the hope that he would develop a psychology based upon physiological reductions to the functioning of ‘material particles’ or ‘neurons’ (S.E. 1: 295), what thenceforth seems to characterise the vast remainder of Freud’s work is the production of theory governed by precise clinical problems; which is to say, the generation of theory becomes dependent upon a priority accorded to empirical observation from within the highly specific therapeutic methodology of the psychoanalytic clinic. After his abandonment of hypnosis and suggestion as techniques of treatment, and having settled on the therapeutic modality specific to psychoanalysis that came to be known as free-association, this emerges as the prism through which all clinical material was refracted, providing the cardinals of organisation determinant of the development of subsequent theorising. Does this not indubitably indicate a shift from rationalism to empiricism?

In fact, not at all; as the philosopher of science and tireless critic of psychoanalysis, Adolf Grünbaum, has observed: ‘after 1896 [Freud] perennially saw himself entitled to proclaim the scientificity of his clinical theory entirely on the strength of a secure and direct epistemic warrant from the observations he made of his patients and himself’ (Grünbaum 1985: 6; author’s italics). The transition in Freud’s work, then, is from a theory-praxis based upon an ontological rationalism to a savoir-faire grounded in a methodological rationalism. There is, then, a transition from the construction of a theory-praxis deriving from rationalist deductions and elaborations of a putative materialist ontology (‘material particles’; ‘neurons’), to the derivation of deductions and elaborations from the empirical technique employed in the treatment itself.

This point can, perhaps, best be illustrated with reference to one of his papers from 1914, ‘On Narcissism: An Introduction’. Amidst a difficult conceptual discussion concerning the divisional cathexis by the ego of libidinal and non-libidinal energy, Freud pauses to reflect upon the nature of his endeavours. Mulling over the fact he ‘dislikes the thought of abandoning observation for barren theoretical controversy’, he nevertheless feels he ‘cannot…shirk an attempt at clarification’ of the theoretical concepts with which he is engaged. What is more, Freud decides, it is actually the embedding of intellectual acts of clarification within a concrete praxis that forms the ground upon which any reputable science is built, in the first place: 

It is true that notions such as that of an ego-libido, an energy of the ego-instincts, and so on, are neither particularly easy to grasp, nor sufficiently rich in content; a speculative theory of the relations in question would begin by seeking to obtain a sharply defined concept as its basis. But I am of the opinion that that is just the difference between a speculative theory and a science erected on empirical interpretation. The latter will not envy speculation its privilege of having a smooth, logically unassailable foundation, but will gladly content itself with nebulous, scarcely imaginable basic concepts, which it hopes to apprehend more clearly in the course of its development, or which it is even prepared to replace by others. For these ideas are not the foundation of science, upon which everything rests: that foundation is observation alone (S.E. 14: 77).

Thus, what constitutes the difference between a ‘speculative theory’ and a science ‘erected on empirical interpretation’ is the importance of ‘sharply defined’ concepts which do not start out so, but rather become such over time, with the cumulative weight of observation; more exactly then, it is the gradual conceptual rigour which is brought to bear upon the phenomenological data of clinical work that defines a genuine science. 

Despite the emphasis on clinical observation then, (singular) empirical observation consistently remains strictly subordinate to the (universal) rationalism of the clinical method itself – which, it must be noted, is strictly non-egological, as it does not aim at a ‘logically unassailable foundation’ but instead remains open, fluid, admitting of the unknown, of the void. What is crucial to appreciate is the shift this marks in Freud’s work. Unlike two decades previously, it is not simply the manipulation of conceptual categories by a mind engaged in ‘imaginings, transpositions and guesses’, but rather the labour of an engaged reason animated by a specific clinico-observational methodology. As Freud would clarify in ‘An Autobiographical Study’ a further ten years later in 1925, the ‘speculative superstructure’ of theory can be discarded and modified as demanded by the requirements of clinical work with little effect on the methodological framework of psychoanalysis: 

Such [metapsychological] ideas…are part of a speculative superstructure of psychoanalysis, any portion of which can be abandoned or changed without loss or regret the moment its inadequacy has been proved. But there is plenty to be described that lies closer to the actual experience (S.E 20: 31–32).