Letter to Scientific American

Peter J. Swales, author of numerous pioneering essays exploring the early history of psychoanalysis, is unimpressed by Mark Solms’s article in the April 2004 issue of Scientific American, “Freud Returns”. Here we reproduce an unpublished letter to Scientific American which questions Mark Solms’s competence in the field of Freud scholarship, together with an addendum and postscript.

Letters to the Editors
Scientific American

May 10, 2004

In reproducing a diagram from an 1895 manuscript, Mark Solms endeavours to portray Sigmund Freud as both percipient and prescient by drawing special attention to the “contact barriers” between neurons whose action he there supposedly “predicted”. Solms elaborates: “Two years later English physiologist Charles Sherrington discovered such gaps and named them synapses”. In truth, however, the separating surfaces between nerve cells had been recognized by the histologist Ramón y Cajal as early as 1888, then reported on by him in 1892; and the significance of these had, by the year 1895, been much discussed – by, among others, Auguste Forel, Wilhelm His, Wilhelm Waldeyer, and Freud’s former teacher Sigmund Exner.

In 1897, while Sherrington was at work on a text on the nervous system requested of him by the physiologist Sir Michael Foster (himself a proponent of such gaps between neurons), he felt a need for a convenient term — whereupon Foster obliged him by consulting the Euripidean scholar Arthur W. Verrall, who proposed the word “synapse” (from the Greek for ‘clasp’). Thus, Sherrington made no such discovery, and is to be credited only with having solicited a name; and Freud, in 1895, was being in no way percipient nor prescient but, as a neuropathologist by profession, was simply deferring to the then current understanding of the nervous system.*

Solms’s tendentiousness in seeking to rehabilitate Freud’s ideas is betrayed not simply by his distortion of the history of neurology but his cavalier disregard of modern Freud scholarship. He asserts that “Freud’s early experiments with cocaine — mainly on himself — convinced him that the libido must have a specific neurochemical foundation” — one that the author now tries to identify with the systemic action of the neurotransmitter, dopamine. But this is precisely what I contended as long ago as 1983 in an essay entitled “Freud, Cocaine, and Sexual Chemistry: The Role of Cocaine in Freud’s Conception of the Libido”, reprinted in 1989 in a 4-volume Routledge anthology of enduring critical assessments of Freud and his work.

Mine, though, is a thesis routinely maligned by Freud-partisans as lacking any evidence and purely speculative in nature. It is truly ironical, then, that in now espousing such a viewpoint Solms should be controverting the received Freudian wisdom — also that in doing so, both in a 2002 essay and in his recent article, he should eschew any citation of my heretical 1983 essay and proffer his assertion as though its truth were something manifestly self-evident (also, by bibliographic omission, as a novel product of his own intellectual labours). My object in 1983 was to show how Freud’s toxicological libido theory, rather than having been clinically derived, had functioned as an a priori principle in all of his psychological investigations. Would only that, like me, Solms were now to demonstrate some grasp of why it should be that, epistemically, such a prepossession serves to vitiate all of Freud’s subsequent clinical and hermeneutic presentations.

*[Addendum, June 30, 2004]
Albeit an understanding still then contested in that some — most prominently, Camillo Golgi — would continue very ardently to advocate a reticular theory of brain structure that was only finally to be overthrown more than a half century later. Evidently Solms went astray because, rather than consulting the authoritative texts, he would seem to have relied instead on the neuromanticist volume of his colleague, Joseph LeDoux: Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are (2002). There LeDoux portrays Freud — rashly, many would say — as a champion of the Cajal/Waldeyer neuron doctrine and notes how their cell theory “figured prominently” in his 1895 manuscript, wherein he “introduced the term contact barriers to describe the points where neurons abut…” (pp. 38-39). (Freud’s text, dubbed by his editors Project for a Scientific Psychology, was published only posthumously, in 1950.) Citing the work of G. Shepherd, LeDoux continues: “Two years after Freud wrote his Project, Sir Charles Sherrington proposed a different term for the connections between neurons… He was probably unaware [sic!] of Freud’s contact barriers, and chose to call the gaps synapses, derived from the Greek word meaning to clasp, connect, or join” (p. 39). Thus, it would certainly seem that, in crediting Sherrington with an 1897 “discover[y]”, Solms has simply bastardized what his associate LeDoux had had to say — of course, to Freud’s great advantage.

Peter J. Swales


Fielding H. Garrison, An Introduction to the History of Medicine, W.B. Saunders Co., Philadelphia, 1929 (pp. 525-526, 542-543); Garrison’s History of Neurology revised and enlarged by Lawrence C. McHenry, Jr., Charles C. Thomas, Springfield IL, 1969 (p. 205); cf. Malcolm Macmillan, The Completed Arc: Freud Evaluated, MIT Press. Cambridge MA, 1997 (pp. 178-184). Garrison (ibid); McHenry, Jr. (ibid). Sigmund Freud: Critical Assessments, edited by Laurence Spurling, Routledge, NY, 1989 (Vol. I, pp. 273-302). Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for Our Time, W.W. Norton, NY, 1988 (p. 749); Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Subject to Biography, Harvard University Press. 1998 (pp. 118-119); Nathan G. Hale, Jr., “Freud’s Critics: A Critical Look”, Partisan Review. LXVI, 1999 (p. 239). Mark Solms, “An Introduction to the Neuroscientific Works of Freud”, in: The Pre-Psychoanalytic Writings of Sigmund Freud, edited by Getrudis van der Vijver & Filip Geerardyn, Karnac, London, 2002 (pp. 25-26).

Postscript [May 20, 2004]

Cave: asinus ad lyram asinum fricat

In his article entitled “Freud Returns”, published under the rubric “Neuroscience” in the May 2004 issue of Scientific American (pp. 82-88), author Mark Solms ends a paragraph (p. 88) with the following two sentences:

In the words of J. Allan Hobson, a renowned sleep researcher and Harvard Medical School psychia­trist, the renewed interest in Freud is lit­tle more than unhelpful “retrofitting” of modern data into an antiquated theoret­ical framework. But as Panksepp said in a 2002 interview with Newsweek magazine, for neuroscientists who are enthusi­astic about the reconciliation of neurology and psychiatry, “it is not a matter of proving Freud right or wrong, but of fin­ishing the job.”

Earlier in his article (p. 84, cf. pp. 87, 88), Solms has identified Jaak Panksepp as one of a number of “experts in contemporary behavioral neuroscience” and a member of the editorial advisory board of “the successful journal” Neuro­-Psychoanalysis (sic!).

In a recent article entitled “Reply to Domhoff (2004): Dream Research in the Court of Public Opinion”, published in the journal Dreaming (Vol. 14, No. 1. pp. 18-20) as a rejoinder to G. William Domhoff’s essay, “Why Did Empirical Dream Re­searchers Reject Freud? A Critique of Historical Claims by Mark Solms” (ibid., pp. 3-17), Solms ends by again quoting Panksepp (p. 20):

I, no less than Domhoff, would like to develop a new theory of dreams, but I do not want to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. As Panksepp put it in a recent interview with Newsweek magazine, “it is not a matter of proving Freud right or wrong, but of finishing the job” (“What Freud Got Right,” 2002, p. 51).

The cited article in the magazine Newsweek, “What Freud Got Right: His theories, long discredited, are finding support from neurologists using modern brain imaging” (November 11, 2002, pp. 50-51) — an article authored by journalist Fred Guterl, and featured under the rubric “Psychology” — ends with the following paragraph:

Freud’s psychological map may have been flawed in many ways, but it also hap­pens to be the most coherent and, from the standpoint of individual experience, mean­ingful theory of the mind there is. “Freud should be placed in the same category as Darwin, who lived before the discovery of genes,” says Panksepp. “Freud gave as a vi­sion of a mental apparatus. We need to talk about it, develop it, test it.” Perhaps it’s not a matter of proving Freud wrong or right, but of finishing the job.

A suitably attentive reader discovers, then, that Solms has twice misattributed his quotation while at the same time garbling it. Besides his transposition of “wrong or right”, he has omitted the qualifier, “Perhaps”, and hence converted a statement hedged by possibility and uncertainty into something apodictic. But. even more significantly, he has misattributed authorship of the sentence and thereby imbued it with some greater authority and greater gravity — after all, a categorical statement from the mouth of a neuroscientist bears a great deal more weight than could ever the all-too-glib punchline of a news-magazine hack.

Whether or not Dr. Panksepp might mind that a colleague has represented him in print as having, without heed, bought futures is here of no concern — after all, Panksepp is a member of the “Neuroscientific Advisory Board” of the so-called Arnold Pfeffer Center for Neuro-Psychoanalysis [sic!] of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, of which Solms is himself Director. Asinus asinum fricat. Far more important is the matter of Solms’s appalling lack of scholarly rigour. Asinus ad lyram.

In a biographical blurb accompanying Solms’s article in the current issue of Scientific American, he is heralded as “editor and translator of the forthcoming four-volume series The Complete Neuroscientific Works of Sigmund Freud (Karnac Books)” (p. 87). Solms’s mangling and misattribution, twice, of a quoted statement — also, for that matter, his misattrib­ution of a discovery to physiologist Charles Sherrington, in 1897, in such a way as to render Sigmund Freud, in 1895, both percipient and prescient; and his non-attribution of certain radical assertions about Freud, cocaine, and the libido to an heretical 1983 essay by yours truly (vide: the undersigned’s Letter to the Editors of Scientific American dated May 10, 2004) — do not augur well for the field of serious Freud-studies, to say the very least. Are we soon gonna learn that Solms has misattributed to Freud what is in fact the work of another author? Cave asinum.

Yours very truly,
Peter J. Swales

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