Freud’s Perjuries as ‘Spots on the Sun’

The following is a condensed extract from an essay titled “Are Freud’s Critics Scurrilous?”, translated and published in Le livre noir de la psychoanalyse (Editions des Arènes).

Sigmund Freud may have been a great man but he was not an honourable one. Freud’s claims to greatness rest on his imaginative and expressive powers; his dishonour arises from his leadership of a movement in whose interests he perjured himself repeatedly.
The most striking fact about responses to documentation of Freud’s perjuries is how often they take the form not of denial but of extenuation.


Here is one example of how this is done. Freud repeatedly put forward as a demonstration of the therapeutic power of psychoanalysis, even at its most primitive, the case of a patient, Anna O, although he knew she had to be confined to a sanatorium in spite of the ‘talking cure’.

What kind of response has this disconcerting revelation, that Freud’s repeated allusions to Anna O.’s cure were false, met?

This is how Elisabeth Roudinesco reconciles the historic facts with the Freudian falsehood in her history of the psychoanalytic movement. The false story of Anna O’s cure ‘…bears witness to an historical reality to which we cannot oppose the simplistic argument of a reality of facts…’ She argues that we must not confuse the construction of a fable with an intentional lie.

A stratagem analogous to Roudinesco’s has been imputed to the classicist Paul Verne who apparently argued on behalf of Holocaust deniers that ‘the denial of the reality of Auschwitz is not ‘a falsehood but a mythical truth’ Would Elisabeth Roudinesco have come to the rescue of holocaust deniers with her opaque distinction between a ‘historical reality’ and ‘a reality of facts’?

There are those who dismiss the demonstration of Freud’s numerous perjuries not because they doubt them but because they feel that they do not settle the issue of the esteem in which Freud ought to be held. The foremost British Stalinist of his day said, when compelled by Khrushchev’s revelations to concede the truth of Stalin’s crimes, they were no more than ‘spots on sun.’ This can easily be adapted to serve the needs of Freudian apologetic. If, as Eissler maintains, psychoanalysis is capable of effecting ‘the liberation of the west from the guilty feelings that are caused by the two Testaments.’, Freud’s various malfeasances can equally be viewed as no more than ‘spots on the sun’.


There are those who concede Freud’s mendacity but excuse it on the grounds that though the evidence was fabricated the claims advanced were true. This rationale is not without precedent. There is a story that an American historian was so certain that Speer was lying when he denied knowledge of the final solution that he altered the minutes of a meeting at which it was discussed to make it appear that Himmler directly addressed Speer on the topic. An analogous mode of extenuation is implicit in the justification advanced of Freud’s mendacity by a Canadian philosopher of science, Ian Hacking. In his book Rewriting the Soul, Hacking writes, ‘Freud had a passionate commitment to Truth, deep underlying truth, as a value. That ideological commitment is fully compatible with – may even demand -lying through one’s teeth.’

There are also those who retreat to a different mode of truth. An English novelist convinced that the primal scene in Freud’s case history of the wolf man never happened argued that it nevertheless possessed ‘a different, deeper kind of truth.’ There are still others: those who appear willing to dispense with truth altogether in view of the moral grandeur of the Freudian vision. This too has its analogies in the history of Soviet apologetic. André Malraux once argued ‘Just as the inquisition does not detract from the fundamental dignity of Christianity so the Moscow Trials do not detract from the fundamental dignity of communism.’ It is my impression that no sooner has it been made impossible for Freudians to maintain that Freud’s discoveries are true in the sense in which they were advanced and taken, than they will discover that they possess a ‘a fundamental dignity’.


It has been objected to Fred Crews that he finds Freudians ‘who take issue with him not just wrong but furtive or glib…’ What grounds are there for thinking Crews’s judgement harsh? What does it take to show that Freud’s partisans are ‘not just wrong but furtive or glib’? Crews’s charge of glibness has often been made against psychoanalysts by other psychoanalysts. In 1952 Edward Glover, a prominent figure in the British Psychoanalytic Society, described ‘a typical sequence’: ‘An analyst of established prestige and seniority, produces a paper advancing some new point of view or alleged discovery in the theoretical or clinical field…the chances are that without any check, this view or alleged discovery will gain currency, will be quoted and re-quoted until it attains the status of an accepted conclusion.’ The question Glover fails to address is how these merely ‘alleged discoveries’ are to be distinguished from the genuine ones Glover believed himself to be in possession of. Over a decade later the analyst Roy Grinker spoke of the ‘worn-out hackneyed reiterations and reformulations of Freudian literature and the stultifying stereotypes stated as positive facts’, once again posing the same unresolved question of how the distinction is to be made. In the 1980s still another analyst, Marshall Edelson, conceded that ‘rival claims… are frequently….presented and re-presented, as if the mere statement of them in more and more powerful rhetorical terms would settle the matter; or they are settled and resolved locally by a socio-political rather than by a scientific process.’ Edelson did not say how these socio-political claims were to be identified and distinguished from the rest.

Why did the implications of persistent and intractable divergence between analysts not sink in? Some will feel that there is nevertheless too large a step between the failure of apologists to deal adequately with the indisputable fact of persistent and intractable disagreement, and the inference that we are not dealing with rational conviction but with an infatuation of abnormal intensity.

Here are some examples of the distinctive affective relation in which Freudians often stood to their convictions. In his autobiography Wilhelm Stekel describes himself as ‘the apostle of Freud who was my Christ’. The same soterological note is struck by Hans Sachs – a member of Freud’s inner circle – who says of The Interpretation of Dreams, ‘when I had finished the book I had found the one thing worthwhile for me to live for; many years later I discovered that it was the only thing I could live by.’


The suspicion that Freud’s apologists are guilty of bad faith is not one which is ordinarily capable of demonstration, but is analogous to that raised in connection with apologists for the enormities of Stalin’s Russia. At what point did their credulity become morally reprehensible? Though it may be difficult to know with respect to the legend of Freud’s truthfulness where the cut-off point should be drawn, there are cases where we can be fairly sure it had been passed.

And yet I think it fair to infer from the complacency with which several apologists have responded to documentation of Freud’s mendacity, that even if the traditional testimonials to Freud’s honesty and truthfulness eventually take their place with aberrations such as the plethora of tributes to the humanitarianism of Joseph Stalin, this will make no great difference to the esteem in which Freud is held. The exposure of Freud’s deceptions and prevarications will be assimilated but dismissed as little more than ‘spots on the sun’.

Frank Cioffi is the author of Freud and the Question of Pseudoscience.

Comments are closed.