Howard Gardner’s reading of Freud: A case of wilful ignorance?

In the Washington Post of 7 January 2006 is a review by Howard Gardner of Peter D. Kramer’s book Freud: Inventor of the Modern Mind. One sentence in particular of Gardner’s is worth closer examination:

No reader of Kramer alone would appreciate the extent to which Freud airs doubts, responds to criticisms, admits his changes of mind and presents extensive transcripts that readers can judge for themselves.

Now Howard Gardner is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He also holds positions as adjunct professor of psychology at Harvard University, and adjunct professor of neurology at the Boston University School of Medicine and Sciences. So how come when it comes to Freud he writes such nonsense?

The only publications to which Gardner can possibly be alluding with his reference to Freud’s “extensive transcripts” are the case histories, in which Freud told his readers precisely what he wanted them to know, and in which it is frequently impossible to discern what came from the patient and what came from Freud. As Rosemarie Sand has written [1983, p. 350]: “Throughout the Freud corpus, the lack of discrimination between Freud’s associations and those of his patients presents a formidable obstacle to the epistemologist.” And yet it is on the basis of his case reports that Gardner thinks we can judge Freud’s clinical claims for ourselves. Well, there is a sense in which we can – as long as we read Freud with our brains in gear.

Evidently Gardner hasn’t read Patrick Mahony’s book on the “Rat Man”, in which, as Mahony noted in a letter to the American Journal of Psychiatry, he “pointed out Freud’s intentional confabulation and documented the serious discrepancies between Freud’s day-to-day process notes of the treatment and his published case history of it.” Freud destroyed all his other case notes, so we’ll never know the extent to which he also ‘doctored’ his other famous case histories. However, for the one case for which the patient provided information later, we know that the “Wolf Man” expressed his scepticism about Freud’s main analytic claims, and derided Freud’s claim to have cured his symptoms. (For evidence that Freud engaged in some considerable doctoring of the material in the case of the Wolf Man, and that he almost certainly invented the crucial “Grusha scene” – purportedly, and all too conveniently, “recollected” by the patient from his infancy after four years of analysis – that enabled him to find the “solution” to the analysis, see Esterson [1993], pp. 69-72, 77-93.)

As for Gardner’s writing of “the extent to which Freud airs doubts, responds to criticisms, admits his changes of mind”, he seems to have swallowed Freud’s rhetoric whole. I am genuinely puzzled that psychologists, of all people, can read Freud and not discern the persuasive stratagems that he employs to win over his readers. Gardner should try reading Stanley Fish’s [1986] dissection of the “Wolf Man” case history, “Withholding the Missing Portion: Power, Meaning and Persuasion in Freud’s ‘The Wolf Man’.” (At one point, in relation to Freud’s use of persuasive devices, Fish describes his achieving “a virtuoso level of performance”.) Or he could read Chapter 12, “Techniques of Persuasion”, in my book Seductive Mirage [1993]. In the words of Clark Glymour [1983, p. 70]:

Faced [in 1897] with the evidence that the methods on which almost all of his work relied were in fact unreliable, Freud had many scientifically honorable courses of action available to him. He could have published his doubts and continued to use the same methods, reporting his results in company with caveats. He could have published his doubts and abandoned the subject. He could have attempted experimental inquiries into the effects of suggestion in his therapeutic sessions. He did none of these things, or others one might conceive. Instead he published The Interpretation of Dreams to justify by rhetorical devices the very methods he had every reason to distrust.

Putting it in more blunt terms, Frank Cioffi [1998b, p. 182] writes that “the ultimate division in the Freud controversy is between those who would be happy to purchase a used car from Freud or his advocates, and those who would not”.

The question remains: How is it that someone of Gardner’s intellectual eminence, a psychologist to boot, can read Freud so credulously, and even come up with the manifest absurdity that Freud presented us with “transcripts” that enable us to judge for ourselves the validity of his alleged clinical findings? The same, of course, may be asked, in more general terms, of innumerable academics and intellectuals in the twentieth century – and the answer is just as elusive. My best guess is that Freud’s extraordinary gifts as a story-teller and rhetorician cast a kind of spell over many readers, so much so that they find it almost inconceivable that what he reports are not authentic accounts of his historical and clinical experiences. There was some excuse (just) for this before around 1980. Thereafter the knowledge that Freud’s accounts of the early history of psychoanalysis were questionable was easily accessible in the literature, and doubts about the accuracy of his clinical accounts were being voiced. Today, credulity exemplified by Howard Gardner’s statement quoted above can surely only be explained by a longstanding attachment to Freud’s writings as a consequence of early acquaintanceship with them (usually in the course of a University education at a time when Freud was almost universally revered in the United States), plus what I’m inclined to describe as a kind of wilful ignorance of the critical writings on Freud of the last three decades. (See, e.g., the bibliography below.)

I would add that self-deception in regard to his achievements, enabling him to maintain an utter conviction as to the rightness of his “cause”, played a considerable role in enhancing the persuasive force of Freud’s writings. As Gellner [1985, p. 216] observed, “the idea that he might be deceiving himself does not seem to have entered his consciousness”. And again Gellner, writing of Freud’s assertion that there was no need for empirical confirmation of his contentions because the clinical evidence was so overwhelming: “This would suggest a person capable of some persisting indulgence in self-delusion.”

I’ll leave Gellner to have the last word. Summing up Freud’s achievements he concluded: “Freud did not discover the Unconscious. What he did do was to endow it with a language, a ritual, and a church.”


We know that Freud engaged in subterfuge in his 1899 “Screen Memories” paper. As his colleague and biographer Ernest Jones acknowledged, his supposed interlocutor in that paper was none other than Freud himself. Less well-known is the remarkable research of Peter J. Swales [1982] that has shown beyond reasonable doubt that the “acquaintance” in the exemplary “aliquis” analysis of an error in recalling a quotation from Virgil in Chapter 2 of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901) was again Freud himself.

The significance of the recent discovery that Freud shared a room in a hotel with his sister-in-law Minna Bernays during a holiday they took together in the summer of 1898 owes nothing to the prurient aspect of the incident, as newspaper reports would have led readers to believe. The “aliquis” error that was subjected to analysis was, as deciphered by Freud, found to be the consequence of the supposed acquaintance’s fear that he might have made his girlfriend pregnant. The logic of Swales’s research, reproduced in meticulous detail in his 1982 article, pointed to its being the case that it was Freud himself who had had this fear, and Swales identified the 1898 holiday as the time when the deed was done. With the discovery of the hotel room-sharing in the name of “Dr. Sigm. Freud u[nd] Frau” during that holiday we have what is effectively the “smoking gun” that comes very close to a confirmation of Swales’s closely argued contention that the lengthy exchanges between Freud and the “acquaintance” as recounted Chapter 2 of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life were actually a product of Freud’s own mind.

More recently, Swales [2003] has published another remarkable example of his indefatigable research which demonstrates that it is very probable that Freud’s exemplary analysis of the forgetting of a proper name (the “Signorelli” analysis) in Chapter 1 of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life is also fraudulent.


Cioffi, F. (1974). “Was Freud a Liar?” The Listener, 7 February 1974, 91: 172-174. Reprinted in F. Cioffi, Freud and the Question of Pseudoscience (Open Court), 1998, pp. 199-204.

Cioffi, F. (1998a). Freud and the Question of Pseudoscience. Chicago and La Salle: Open Court.

Cioffi, F. (1998b). “The Freud Controversy: What is at Issue.” In M. S. Roth (ed.), Freud: Conflict and Culture: Essays on His Life, Work, and Legacy (Knopf), 1998, pp. 169-182.

Crews, F. C. (ed.) (1998). Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend. New York: Viking.

Ellenberger, H.F. (1970). The Discovery of the Unconscious. New York: Basic Books.

Esterson, A. (1993). Seductive Mirage: An Exploration of the Work of Sigmund Freud. Chicago and La Salle: Open Court.

Esterson, A. (2001). The mythologizing of psychoanalytic history: deception and self deception in Freud’s accounts of the seduction theory episode . History of Psychiatry, xii, 2001: 329-352.

Fish, S. (1986). “Withholding the Missing Portion: Power, Meaning and Persuasion in Freud’s ‘The Wolf Man’.” Times Literary Supplement, August 29, 1986: 935-938. An extended version of this essay is in F. Meltzer (ed.), The Trial(s) of Psychoanalysis (University of Chicago Press), 1987, pp. 183-209. An abbreviated version is in F. C. Crews (ed.), Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend (Viking), 1998, pp. 186-199.

Freud, S. (1953-1974). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. (Trans. J. Strachey et al.). London: Hogarth Press.

Gellner, E. (1985). The Psychoanalytic Movement: Or the Coming of Unreason. London: Granada.

Glymour, C. (1983). “The Theory of Your Dreams.” In R. S. Cohen and L Lauden (eds.), Physics, Philosophy and Psychoanalysis (D. Reidel), 1983, pp. 57-71.

Macmillan, M. (1997 [1991]). Freud Evaluated: The Completed Arc. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Mahony, P. (1986). Freud and the Rat Man. Yale University Press.

Mahony, P. (1990). Letter, American Journal of Psychiatry, 147: 8, August 1990: 1109-1110.

Obholzer, K. (1980). The Wolf Man: Sixty Years Later. Conversations With Freud’s Patient. London: Routledge.

Sand, R. (1983). “Confirmation in the Dora Case.” International Review of Psychoanalysis, 10, 1983: 333-357.

Stadlen. A. (1989 [1985]). “Was Dora ‘Ill’?” In L. Spurling (ed.), Sigmund Freud: Critical Assessments, Volume 2 (Routledge), 1989, pp. 193-203.

Sulloway, F. (1979). Freud: Biologist of the Mind. New York: Basic Books.

Sulloway, F. (1992). “Reassessing Freud’s Case Histories: The Social Construction of Psychoanalysis.” In T. Gelfand and J. Kerr (eds.), Freud and the History of Pyschoanalysis (The Analytic Press), 1992, pp. 153-192.

Swales, P. J. (1982). “Freud, Minna Bernays and the Conquest of Rome: New Light on the Origins of Psychoanalysis.” New American Review, Spring/Summer 1982: 1-23.

Swales, P. J. (2003). “Freud, Death and Sexual Pleasures: On the Psychical Mechanism of Dr. Sigm. Freud.” Arc de Cercle, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2003, pp. 5-74.

Timpanaro, S. (1976). The Freudian Slip: Psychoanalysis and Textual Criticism. London: New Left Books.

Webster, R. (1995). Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis. London: HarperCollins.

Wilcocks, R. (1994). Maelzel’s Chess Player: Sigmund Freud and the Rhetoric of Deceit. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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