Newsweek and the Undead Freud
Readers of the March 27, 2006, issue of Newsweek were greeted with the cover-story “news” that “Freud Is Not Dead.” Three items attempted to make that point in different ways. The author of the main article, Jerry Adler, consulted many people, including me, before writing his article. Readers of Butterflies and Wheels who took note of Newsweek’s spring offensive may be interested to see the e-mailed answers I gave to Mr. Adler’s questions, along with two subsequent assessments that I offered him after his piece was published. You will see, below, that I among others offered Newsweek reason to think clearly about the dubious nature of the editors’ attempted Freud revival.
The inconsecutive nature of my paragraphs reflects the various questions that Mr. Adler posed to me.
My answers to almost all of your questions can be found, with
references, in the editorial parts of my anthology Unauthorized Freud
(Viking, or a Penguin paperback, 1998), which you may or may not have
had time to peruse.
One set of questions can be answered summarily: of course Freud’s
influence in our culture has been pervasive. Nobody doubts it, so
that surely can’t be the news item.
A more interesting question would be whether any evidence–recognized
as such by uncommitted and scientifically well-informed parties–has
recently, or ever, come to light in support of Freud’s specific
propositions about the mind. That issue was thoroughly addressed a
few years ago by the philosopher of science Edward Erwin in a book
called A Final Accounting. Its conclusion was that no corroborative
evidence whatsoever has been found. The same conclusion emerges from
Malcolm Macmillan’s great study Freud Evaluated: The Completed Arc
(1991; revised 1997, with a foreword by me).
How can this be, if, as you say, your own dreams and slips appear to
vindicate Freud’s views? The answer is that scientific validation
requires more than the reporting of phenomena that seem consistent
with a given theory. The same phenomena may admit of any number of
other explanations, some of them more consistent with Ockham’s razor
(the fewer gratuitous assumptions, the better). Thus, e.g., Sebastian
Timpanaro’s important book The Freudian Slip, while admitting the
possibility that deep unconscious conflict may explain some slips,
shows that Freud and his followers have ignored a range of much
simpler explanations. Until such explanations have been tested and
ruled out on strict empirical grounds, the theory of the Freudian slip
remains a parlor game and nothing more. And the same critique can be
applied to Freud’s dream theory, which (in The Interpretation of
Dreams) presumes the truth of its own suppositions and makes a number
of arbitrary and sneaky moves. The fact that you yourself can see
something “Freudian” in one or another of your dreams attests to the
theory’s influence but not to its cogency.
Two years ago, your colleague Fred Guterl wrote a rather sensational
cover story about “What Freud Got Right,” relying heavily on the
testimony of the neuroscientist Mark Solms, who purported to find the
neurobiology of dreaming to be strongly supportive of Freud’s notions.
What Mr. Guterl neglected to mention was that Solms is a
psychoanalyst, an editor of Freud’s writings, an official of the Anna
Freud Centre, and an ardent public advocate whose views about
psychoanalysis-&-dreaming are by no means shared by his scientific
colleagues, who find them amusing at best. On a deeper level, Mr.
Guterl failed to understand the point I have made above: that
resemblances between a given phenomenon–e.g., dreaming–and a given
theory in no way constitute a triumph for the theory. (Guterl and I
had a civil correspondence about this.)
One rational way of judging whether Freudian propositions have found
empirical support might be to bypass the print wars between Freudians
and anti-Freudians and simply look at the research being done in
academic psychology departments. A recent citation study (by Robbins
et al.) found that, for several decades now, the major journals of the
field have completely ignored all psychoanalytic claims. Nor, I
believe, can you find a single course, in the psychology department of
any reputable American university, that treats Freudianism as anything
other than a historical curiosity.
Why not? It’s because academic psychology concerns itself with
testable hypotheses that stand a chance of vindication through
controlled experimentation–and because nothing in Freudian psychology
is sufficiently free of ambiguity and self-contradiction, or
sufficiently close to raw experience, to be of empirical interest.
This virtually unanimous verdict of the people who are most qualified
to pass judgment ought, I think, to count more with Newsweek than the
perpetuation of folklore that has been culturally, but never
scientifically, accepted since the early years of the twentieth
I don’t know whether you yourself are a veteran of psychoanalytic
therapy, but at present nearly all of the remaining enthusiasm for
Freudian theory comes from such veterans, who feel that their
experience on the couch has borne out some of Freud’s propositions.
Suffice it to say that all therapeutic regimens produce such
conviction in their satisfied clients. Indeed, the beliefs thus
acquired may actually work some positive therapeutic effects–why not?
But at the same time, the highly suggestive conditions under which
they are acquired disqualifies them as evidence for the objective
truth of any given proposition.
You ask, in a different vein, about the credit Freud ought to receive
for having recognized our darker nature and freeing us from
common-sense verities. Well, I agree that there is nothing
commonsensical about psychoanalysis and that the Freudian movement
stirred intellectuals and artists to value and explore “the
irrational.” But Freud greatly, and systematically, exaggerated his
originality, and his followers have maintained the sham to this day.
Nietzsche alone, to mention no other name, anticipated Freud in a
number of ways–but without the shallow pretense of having
scientifically demonstrated the mechanics of the mind.
Have you seen Henri Ellenberger’s historical masterpiece of 1970, The
Discovery of the Unconscious? In it you would find that virtually all
of Freud’s general ideas about the unconscious, psychic conflict,
dream life, etc., were richly anticipated by authors whom he had
assuredly read. And on the central topic of sexuality, Freud
plagiarized notions that were current in the “sexology” of his
day–and he placed a more prurient and prudish construction on those
notions than did their actual originators (Moll, Krafft-Ebing, Ellis,
et al.). Freud’s great public success lay in portraying himself as
the only anti-Victorian in the game, a man of tremendous courage and
ascetic scientific integrity. It was all utter bullshit, and his
contemporaries knew it and were justly scornful of his pretensions.
For extensive documentation of that fact, see a wonderful new book in
French, Le dossier Freud, by Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen and Sonu
Of course, there are a number of points on which Freud was quite
original; and those are the ones that deserve to be scrutinized if you
are seriously interested in his “contribution.” There are, e.g., the
death instinct, the inherent penis envy and masochism of women, the
universal Oedipus complex, the latency period, the vaginal orgasm, the
primal crime committed by the primal horde, and the phylogenetic
inheritance of memory traces from that event. All of these ideas are
now embarrassments. Consequently, Freudians fall back on the banal
commonplaces about the deep, dark soul–ideas whose genealogy goes
back at least to Mesmer and in some cases to Plato. What needs to be
emphasized, in any case, is that the same daffy method that led Freud
to psychoanalyze our first non-simian ancestors also underlay his
“clinical discoveries,” none of which were actually inferred from
inductive experience. The man was simply a wild speculator whose
habit was to invent after-the-fact “evidence” for whatever pet idea he
harbored at the moment. The evidence was always a perfect match for
the theory–a sure tip-off to scientific fraudulence.
I do hope that Newsweek will recognize this time, as it didn’t two
years ago, that matters of psychological theory are best decided not
by partisans like Solms and me but by the relevant scientific
community, whose critiques of one another’s hypotheses guarantee a
certain level of rigor. As I’ve said, there is no longer any doubt
about the standing of psychoanalysis among serious independent
inquirers into mental processes. If your editors recognize that fact
but persist, once again, in dredging up the perennial saws about “what
Freud got right,” they will have shamed themselves once more.
In the 50s and 60s I absorbed the standard Partisan Review truisms
about the courageous Freudian exploration of the deep, dark human mind.
But in the later 60s I found myself unable to answer penetrating
criticisms by Karl Popper, Ernest Nagel, Sidney Hook, and others, all
showing quite damningly that psychoanalytic theory is an exercise in
circularity. That is, the “proof” of Freudian concepts is an illusory
effect produced by the application of those same concepts to
experience. It’s scarcely different in kind from materializations of
the Virgin Mary, which, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, are granted only to
gullible Catholics. If the Virgin manifested herself to me, that would
be news; but it is just as unlikely as a Freudian’s finding anything
non-Freudian about some aspect of mental life.
People of a Freudian bent just can’t bring themselves to believe that I
and other apostates have found rational grounds for disbelief that
proved compelling on rational grounds. That’s because an essential
feature of the system is ad hominem slander of any and all critics,
whose dissent must be caused by Freudian factors within their twisted
minds. As someone (Richard Armstrong) recently wrote, it’s as if Darwin
were to have answered his opponents by saying that their failure to
appreciate his theory resulted from their being insufficiently evolved.
Psychoanalysis remains seductive for a number of reasons, of which I
will mention just a few. Secular intellectuals vibrate to Freud’s
sardonic attack on religion and his invitation to “deep knowers” to see
through the sunny illusions of the bourgeoisie. Academic humanists find
that by entering Freud’s world of interlocking symbols and facile
causal assertions, they will never run out of shrewd-looking,
counterintuitive things to say in their essays and books. (It isn’t
always easy to distinguish between actual belief in psychoanalysis and
tenure-minded careerism.) People who are just now overcoming a
repressive provincial upbringing are often dazzled by, and grateful
for, the Freudian emphasis on sexual health. Many top editors,
publishers, and pundits are brainwashed graduates (or perennial
undergraduates) of psychoanalytic therapy. And finally, the Freud
legend–that Promethean story about a single individual who heroically
overcame his repugnance, unlocked humankind’s best-kept secret, the
repressed unconscious, and returned from the underworld to save us
all–continues to be successfully peddled. Newsweek, it must be said,
has done its part in keeping this myth from joining that of Orpheus on
the fiction shelf.
[Peter] Swales’s thesis about Minna [Bernays] has much going for it, including direct testimony by several knowledgeable parties, such as C. G. Jung. But of course it has nothing to do with the correctness or incorrectness of Freudian theory. The people who mention it most often are Freudians,
who cite it as an absurdity that typifies the thinking of all “Freud
bashers.” If you’re really interested in this sidelight, see John
Kerr’s book A Most Dangerous Method.
As for Swales’s aliquis case, which is intimately connected to his
thesis about Freud and Minna, Swales’s 1982 article has been
spectacularly vindicated, with quite conclusive new evidence, in a
recent article by Richard Skues; and that vindication is all the more
impressive because Skues himself has been a fierce defender of Freud.
For those of us who are more concerned with Freud’s scientific ethics
than with his sex life, the bottom line in the aliquis matter is this:
Freud was so unscrupulous that he was willing to invent whole
personages who would attest to the rightness of his theory and the
infallible brilliance of his deductive powers. In other words, once
again, you are dealing with a charlatan here.
The Freud Archive was assembled by Kurt Eissler, who urged the various
donors to stipulate ridiculously long periods of censorship in their
bequests. Eissler’s explicitly stated view was that the world was not
yet ready to learn what the documents contained about the man Freud;
there were too many anti-psychoanalytic types out there who would
misuse the information.
It wasn’t Masson’s (invaluable) Freud-Fliess letters that broke the
logjam, but rather Janet Malcolm’s book of 1984. Malcolm, a loyal
Freudian, made fun of both Masson and Swales, implying that their
strange personalities were more or less what you’d expect from any
anti-Freudian; but as an investigative journalist, she also mocked
Eissler for his timid secrecy. Eissler’s successors at the Library of
Congress have been mightily embarrassed by Malcolm’s scorn, and they’ve
done what they can to undo Eissler’s Orwellian effort. A great many
documents were finally declassified in 2000, and the Library is very
cooperative now in dealing with scholars. Even so, many transcripts of
documents retain Eissler’s blacking-out of patients’ names, as if
people who have been dead for 70 years or so are still at risk of
shame. Moreover, censorship of some files remains in place.
You could do me a favor by sending me some version of your article when
it’s done. I gave up my subscription to Newsweek when, for the
umpteenth time, it indulged in its bad habit of pandering to Christian
superstition. The big “news” question on the cover, as I recall, was
whether the Virgin did or didn’t ascend bodily to heaven–but the
details escape me now.
First post-publication response:
There is indeed much pro-&-con in your article, and I was glad to see
Swales’s aliquis thesis affirmed. The fact that Jonathan Lear doesn’t
care a whit about manufactured evidence is also useful news, I’d say.
But in general, the three items leave a distinctly biased impression,
ranging from a failure to address the (missing) evidential base of
Freud’s ideas to subtle ad hominem shading. Yours truly, e.g., is
portrayed as a “caustic” climber who “made his reputation” at the
expense of the defenseless Freud, whereas Lear, a lay analyst, is
presented as a serenely reliable authority on what Freud taught us all.
More important, it simply isn’t true that neuroscience is validating
repression in particular and psychoanalysis in general. But what’s the
use of complaining, when Newsweek‘s devotion to Freud is second only to its devotion to Jesus?
Second post-publication response:
You did do a good job of juggling all the balls that were tossed at
you. For me, however, the bottom line is that Newsweek can look
straight at scientific fraud–that “sinkhole of circular logic,” plus
the brazen invention of “evidence”–and nevertheless declare its
gratitude to Freud for having uncovered the essentially conflictual
nature of the mind (a nature already acknowledged as such by Plato).
Those of us who ask that a scientist meet ordinary criteria of prudence
and honesty continue to be treated as suspect gadflies whose objections
must stem from some private compulsion or ambition; but when
psychoanalysts praise psychoanalysis, that’s still regarded as weighty
Newsweek had an opportunity to distinguish clearly between the vague honor that Freud heaped upon himself for facing our “dark nature” and
his actual, specific propositions, not a single one of which has been
corroborated. Instead, the net effect of the three articles is to keep
the threadbare legend intact.
By the way, Jonathan Lear is no “psychiatrist.” He’s an academic
philosopher who underwent Freudian therapy and was so impressed by it
that he took the requisite courses and became a lay analyst. All
psychiatrists, as I’m sure you know, possess the M.D. degree.