Wrong but so cuddly

The Guardian hosted an email discussion of Freud and psychoanalysis between Frederick Crews and a psychoanalyst, Susie Orbach. The Guardian intro isn’t very cogent:

For a century or more, Sigmund Freud has cast a long shadow not just over the field of psychoanalysis but over the entire way we think of ourselves as human beings. His theory of the unconscious and his work on dreams, in particular, retain a firm grip on the western imagination, shaping the realms of literature and art, politics and everyday conversation, as well as the way patients are analysed in the consulting room. Since Freud’s death in 1939, however, a growing number of dissenting voices have questioned his legacy and distanced themselves from his ideas. Now Freud is viewed less as a great medical scientist than as a powerful storyteller of the human mind whose texts, though lacking in empirical evidence, should be celebrated for their literary value.

No, not that either. His stories were gripping, but they’re not stories “of the human mind.” They’re stories of Fearless Mind Detective Siggy “Sherlock” Freud, making all us Watsons gasp as he draws the strained but dogmatic interpretation out of his ass.

Orbach speaks first, and pours out a stream of tribute to Freud of the “yes maybe his science was all worthless BUT we can’t think about the mind or anything else human without drawing on him” variety. It’s fatuous.

His work has had an impact of such magnitude that it’s not possible for us to think about what it means to be human, what motivates us, what we yearn for, without those very questions being Freudian.

Freud’s conceptions of the human mind and its complexity, whether exactly accurate, are not at issue here. What is worth talking about is the way in which late-20th-century and early-21st-century culture have taken up what they have understood of his ideas.

It is very easy to dismantle the specific interpretations of Freud. Every generation does and I have done so myself. That is not to do away with Freud. Rather, it shows the strength of the edifice he created.

Honestly – what can you do with that kind of thing? It’s unfalsifiable! “Yes he was wrong about everything, but that just shows how strong he was.” It’s typical of Freud-huggers.

Many aspects of public policy, from understandings of social and interpersonal violence and racism to the construction of masculinity, sexuality, gender, war, use psychoanalytic ideas not as the explanation but as an explanatory tool aiding economic and statistical understandings of why we do the things we do.

No, they really don’t. They’d be laughed out of the room if they did.

Fred replies:

If, as you say, psychoanalytic theory has functioned as a powerfully shaping “explanatory tool”, surely it matters whether Freud’s explanations ever made empirical sense. If they didn’t, the likelihood is considerable that he raised false hopes, unfairly distributed shame and blame, retarded fruitful research and education, and caused patients’ time and money to be needlessly squandered. Indeed, all of those effects have been amply documented.

In your writings, you assert that Freud’s emphasis on the Oedipus complex was androcentric and wrong; that he misrepresented female sexual satisfaction and appears to have disapproved of it; that envy of the penis, if it exists at all, is not a key determinant of low self-esteem among women; and that his standard of normality was dictated by patriarchal bias, thus fostering “the control and subjugation of women”.

This list, which could be readily expanded, constitutes an indictment not only of harmful conclusions but also of the arbitrary, cavalier method by which they were reached. Yet elsewhere in your texts, you refer to Freud’s “discovery of the unconscious” and to his “discovery of an infantile and childhood sexuality”. Were those alleged breakthroughs achieved in a more objective manner than the “discovery” of penis envy? What are the grounds on which any of Freud’s claims deserve to be credited?

Her response is to say they’re on different planets, her job is to sit and listen, not ask all these pesky questions.

Ok so basically psychoanalysis is a brand of mysticism. Fine then, but don’t tell us it shapes how we think about everything.

To be continued, perhaps.

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