It's good to talk, but not in psychobabble, says Adam Phillips. Bryan Appleyard meets a dissident analyst who practises without a couch, offers no easy cures and uses the language of optimism
Psychoanalysis remains one of the most powerful ideas of the age. Freud may, these days, be abused, assaulted and defamed. But his central belief - that we can improve ourselves by talking - retains its hold on the contemporary imagination. Whether on the couch or the Oprah Winfrey show, the modern mind retains its romantic belief that letting it all hang out is good, bottling it up is bad.

Adam Phillips waves the psychoanalytic flag from a small flat in Notting Hill and in a series of three poetically intense books. In his flat he talks to anxious adults for about pounds 45 an hour, and at a Fulham hospital he talks to disturbed children for free. In his books he radically redefines the legacy of Freud as a method of sustaining the life-giving stories that people tell themselves rather than as a technological fix that will cure them.

He is our leading proponent of the validity and vitality of the Freudian ideal. Many other Freudians may not think so. They, like Freud himself, wish to believe that psychoanalysis is a science, that it can be a slow- moving magic bullet that slays mental illness.

Phillips's role as Freudian flag-waver is helped by the fact that he looks strikingly like a healthy Bob Dylan. Jewish, curly-haired, thin, small, surrounded by books and CDs and intense often to the point of alarming silences, this could be an alternate Dylan who decided to give up touring and look after himself. Plus, it turns out, Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited album of 1965 was a decisive event that helped turn Phillips to psychoanalysis.

"Dylan," he explains in a typically deft and passionate passage of intellectual autobiography, "seemed to be a sort of slapstick Jewish Keats in my mind. There was something about such people who were committed to their aliveness in some sense. I found it mostly in poetry and fantasies about the lives of poets - Blake, Keats, Coleridge. Then, when I read Freud, it made some kind of link between Jewishness and romanticism. The Freud I read seemed to have been prepared for me. There seemed to be a direct line from British romanticism to Freud."

There is no couch in his room. He sits at his desk while I sit on a sofa. For colour I would have preferred a couch. But this is emphatically not a surgery, more a student pad. He speaks quickly, trying multiple versions of his sentences, chopping his open palms through the hair and occasionally, disconcertingly, dropping his head into them. I feel at first that I must have said the wrong thing, but then I begin to think that he feels he has said the wrong thing. With Phillips it is difficult to avoid slipping into a complicity that feels like analysis, even though he insists at several points in the interview that "this is not psychoanalysis".

Born in Cardiff in 1954, the son of a solicitor, Phillips was heading via English at Oxford for an academic career until he realised he enjoyed reading too much to talk about it. He continued the literature by researching at York but then swerved into a four-year child psychoanalysis training in London.

"I read Jung and it gave me this fantasy about what it might be like to have a professional life in which you could be interested in what I then thought was the depths. Analysis seemed to be one way of doing this, so I took it from there."

Now he divides his clinical work fifty-fifty between the NHS and private patients and writes in what time he has left. He works and lives part of his time in Notting Hill, the rest in West Hampstead with Professor Jacqueline Rose of London University and Mia, an adopted Chinese baby of 15 months, of whom he can only say with an engaging helplessness "I love her".

Does he analyse Mia? "No, no. It's not something I do. If you meet me at dinner, I'm not going to be analysing you." And then he adds startlingly: "I don't spend most of my life trying to understand other people."

In smartish London society one hears from time to time of his patients. He clearly has a chattering presence, though, equally clearly, he is not cashing in. He is devoted to his NHS work with children, his private rates are relatively undemanding and his flat is modest, its scholarly fullness is continually interrupted by noises emanating from the crunchy social street mix of North Kensington. .

"This is a place," he says, "that you come to in order to go into the world. One of the risks of analysis is that it becomes the most interesting conversation in your life. It can go on for years and years and become a substitute life. The aim is to be in circulation."

His books amount to a determined attempt to humanise the Freudian legacy. Freud himself was trapped by the need to legitimate himself in terms of the science-worshipping society of turn-of-the-century Vienna.

As a result, psychoanalysis has always suffered from the demand that it must work like science, that going into analysis must be a decision similar to taking a pill or buying a fridge. In both cases, we expect something to work and, in the worst cases, we descend into the futile silliness of pop self-help and psychobabble. Psychobabble is a phenomenon for which Phillips expresses a healthy loathing. It makes people, he says, "smug and dreary".

What he wants to do is to help people to talk.

"Learning to talk is very difficult and it doesn't get any easier. I think there is a real risk that psychobabble becomes a reflex language as though people can talk about feeling anxious or narcissistic or having penis envy as though we all know what that means. It's like learning a faked-up language to describe what are the most difficult things to talk about."

But, of course, stripping away the Freud of the popular imagination leaves the difficult question of what psychoanalysis does if it doesn't do this. Phillips's answer is that it offers a way of talking which, in our time, many people find at least helpful. We live in an age in which relationships do not quite seem to work on their own.

"In an ideal world one would talk to one's friends or people we loved. But the fact that there are analysts is a symptom of a culture in which familial and informal, friendly relations aren't what they should be. Ideally, we wouldn't want a world with priests, kings or analysts. But it's as though there are certain things people have to say that can only be said to somebody who is outside either the family or the immediate social world, somebody who, at least in fantasy, is exempt from a certain kind of affiliation."

He hates cultural generalisations, claiming he is not clever enough, but he says he can believe that other societies did not need this third party. He speaks fondly of England between 1770 and 1830, the Romantic era, as a place where "counter-cultural, counter-factual" stories could be told.

"It was a period in which there was a kind of ferment, a hunger for a genuinely better world."

This kind of optimistic idealism is a part of everything Phillips does. Freud was pessimistic about the perpetual conflict between the instincts and the world, he felt he was offering humanity only endless conflict. But the conflict produces precisely the sense of aliveness that Phillips feels is the goal of human life and of his own work, and he wants the story of the conflict to go on.

"It is as though we are living parallel lives. We are inevitably biological bodies that are changing and passing through time, yet we seem to want to come up with ideas that stop time as though it were an attempt to stop the body. So I suppose Freud is saying there is a conflict here, but it is the conflict that matters. The risk is that if you lose the debate, you lose the conflict."

So a Phillips analysis may not cure you of anything, but it may keep you going. He says you may come to him suffering from agoraphobia and you may leave still suffering from agoraphobia, but you may feel the quality of your life is better. Almost all human suffering arises because of fear of the future, fear, for example, that the traumas of the past will be repeated. This kind of analysis aims to lessen the fear by teaching that the future is unknown and the conflict is inevitable without being crippling.

Everything about this doctrine is dissident from its refusal to offer pseudo-technological quick fixes to its idealistic belief in the possibility of health and aliveness. Phillips is even a dissident from the final, pessimistic message of Freud. He turns to a much greater thinker from his vast intellectual treasury to make the point. "Freud thought that nobody would accept psychoanalysis because it brought bad news. Wittgenstein pointed out that people love bad news."

If analysis begins, as Phillips's does, from the position that the news is good, that life is worth living, that there are diamonds amidst its confusion and clutter, then the analysts might not make much money from a culture that likes being rich and sick. But they will, on the other hand, be right.

'Terrors and Experts' by Adam Phillips is published by Faber & Faber at pounds 12.99.