Fashionable Nonsense, as we have observed before, is a Hydra with many heads, a book with many chapters, a motel with many rooms, a folder with many files. There is, in short, no end to it. But in the great thronging crowd-scene that is Fashionable Nonsense, there is one exemplar that stands out like Abe Lincoln addressing the Munchkins. Freud and psychoanalysis are in a class by themselves for their ability to go on being taken seriously and at face value by otherwise rational intellectuals, in the teeth of all the evidence.

It’s not as if it’s a closely-guarded secret. Jeffrey Masson’s publication of the Freud-Fliess letters in 1985, for example, got a lot of attention and sparked much controversy and debate. Hans Eysenck’s Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire in the same year, E. Fuller Torrey’s Freudian Fraud in 1992, Allen Esterson’s Seductive Mirage in 1993, Richard Webster’s Why Freud Was Wrong and Frederick Crews’ The Memory Wars in 1995, Ernest Gellner’s The Psychoanalytic Movement in 1996, Malcolm Macmillan’s Freud Evaluated in 1997, and Frank Cioffi’s Freud and the Question of Pseudoscience and Unauthorized Freud edited by Frederick Crews in 1998 are some of the most prominent of a large number of recent books pointing out Freud’s errors, deceptions, evasions, concealments, and bullying of both patients and colleagues (or followers, which is what they had to be if they wanted to be part of the circle). But the word doesn’t get through – not where it needs to get through. Scientifically based (falsifiable, peer-reviewed, empirical, etc) psychology ignores Freud, but in the humanistic and to some extent in the social scientific branches of inquiry, Freud remains, intact, indeed possibly more influential than ever. For instance the Cambridge series of companions to philosophers inexplicably includes Freud in their number – Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant – and Freud? It’s difficult not to think of this as a dodge. Whatever scientific reputation Freud had is in shreds – so just move him to the philosophy department? He turns out to have been incompetent, dishonest, and cultishly authoritarian in his own chosen line of work, so to save appearances just give him a chair in a different one? His very assertive truth-claims turn out to be all bogus, so naturally the philosophy department is the right slot for him.

It seems he belongs more in a museum of errors, with studies of the four humours, the benefits of blood-letting, pre-Copernican astronomy, the forensics of witchcraft, alchemy, phrenology and phlogiston. His work on ‘hysteria’ turns out to be worthless, because he and Charcot mistook physical brain-injuries that were too small to see for emotional trauma that caused bodily effects. The operation on Emma Eckstein’s nose to cure her ‘nasal reflex neurosis’ and the half-meter of gauze Fliess and Freud left behind, nearly killing her, is well-known, along with Freud’s whimsical interpretation that Eckstein hemmorhaged in order to entice Freud, because she had a crush on him. The treatment of Dora is another bright spot, as is that of ‘Anna O’ – and on it goes.

And yet – despite all this, despite the massive documentation and examination of it, literary critics and ‘theorists’ and even some philosophers go on taking Freud seriously – very seriously indeed. (As do psychoanalysts, of course. Psychoanalysis is a highly remunerative field.) Why? That is something of a mystery. It seems to have a lot to do with the idea of the unconscious – which Freud was far from being the first to think about or discuss, but which his partisans seem to think is inextricable from his fate. It also seems to have to do with vague and vaguely-expressed ideas about human depth, complexity, profundity, imagination. The thought appears to be that if Freud goes, human psychology becomes a thing of gears and levers or of pills, with nothing of interest to say. Why this should be remains unclear – so let us investigate.


Internal Resources

Allen Esterson dissects a BBC radio programme on Freud and hysteria

Allen Esterson examines an error-strewn article in Scientific American by neuroscientist Mark Solms

Allen Esterson debunks some of the myths surrounding Freud’s seduction theory

Frederick Crews replies to Norman Holland’s ‘Psychoanalysis as Science’

Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen on the zero theory of psychoanalysis

Frank Cioffi on the pseudoscience question

External Resources

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