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Criticisms of Freud: Commentary on the Freud Wars

Criticisms of Freud: Commentary on the Freud Wars

Criticisms of FreudToday’s Wall Street Journal offered a book review by Adam Kirsch of, yet another, “quasi-biography” of Sigmund Freud.  The book in question is Freud: The Making of an Illusion by Frederick Crews, the latest in his seemingly endless criticisms of Freud.  As noted by Kirsch, this endless war on Freud by Crews is a direct attack against the person of Freud and, by extension, an assault on nearly everything Freud had to say about the human mind.

Crews, a Professor Emeritus of English of UC Berkeley, is a well-established literary critic who had once embraced psychoanalytic theory, but has since become one of its most vociferous dissidents.  His current work goes beyond his usual attacks against psychoanalysis as a “pseudo-science” and is a direct disparagement of Freud himself as a con man, liar, bully, plagiarist, and false prophet.

As a psychoanalyst myself, I wonder if Crews’ apparent obsession with destroying Freud and psychoanalysis represents what would be labeled a reaction formation–the exaggerated attempt to conceal a private truth (envy) with its opposite (contempt).  This was not Crews’ first harsh criticism of Freud, which dates back decades.  His agenda to eradicate Freud and Freudian theory ironically betrays his indebtedness to Freud for having established a basis for Crews’ career.

No doubt that Freudian psychoanalysis has changed significantly since Freud (who died in 1939), as he, himself, revised his ideas at least five times over a 40-year period.  Nevertheless, he provided 23 volumes of writings on the human condition that have stimulated the search for understanding the complexity of the human mind, our motivations, and our unique forms of psychological sufferings.  Freud offered a humane approach to understanding madness, an early attempt at clinical treatment, a recognition for the importance of child development and child-rearing practices, and a method for understanding the humanities.  Obviously, the legacy of Freud’s ideas has been remarkable.

Despite Freud’s many critics and continued controversy, Nobel-laureate neuroscientist, Eric Kandel, noted that “psychoanalysis still represents the most coherent and intellectually satisfying view of the mind” (Kandel, 1999, p. 505).  Freudian theory, while not a rigorous scientific model that can be easily tested in a laboratory, poses necessary questions that require inter-disciplinary study from all the humanities.  Humans live in both a shared empirical reality and a private, personal world of fantasies and imagination.

Rational-empiricists, like Crews, seem to believe that science, in its purest form, is the only truth. If that were so, why become an English professor?  Science is not a subject matter, but rather is a methodology for research.  The humanities represent other methodological forms that also explore stories about the human experience.  A psychological truth that ignores these other stories denies the essence of the inquisitor.  Humans are ultimately story-makers regardless of what those stories are about; physics, poetry, or dreams.  All our knowledge, no matter how rational or empirical, will always remain human knowledge.

Criticisms of Freud can make important contributions toward a dialogue of ideas.  Unfortunately, character assassination presents as excessive disputation that does little to promote meaningful discussion.  Freud, the man, is dead; eviscerating his corpse appears to me as spiteful and mean-spirited and serves no intellectual or scientific advantage.

To read more on Freud’s theory, see Classical Psychoanalytic Theory.

Kandel, E. (1999). Biology and the future of psychoanalysis: A new intellectual framework for psychiatry revisited. American Journal of Psychiatry, 156, 505- 524.

Kirsch, A. (2017, September 30-October 1). Why the Freud wars will never end. The Wall Street Journal, p. C7.

 

 

Are There Really No Psychological Accidents?

Psychological Determinism

Psychological Determinism
Slip of the tongue?

Perhaps the single most representative concept of psychoanalysis is that of psychological determinism.  By this I mean a fundamental belief that human behavior, consciousness, and experience are determined or explainable.  Freud followed in a scientific tradition that was dedicated to uncovering the laws and mysteries of life, hopefully to lead to a comprehensive theory of the mind.  

Is Action Accidental or Random?

Such an approach would never be satisfied with a conclusion that suggested that a certain action was “accidental” or “random” or that a thought occurred strictly from a spontaneous, meaningless neurochemical action.  Unlike radical behaviorism or even social learning theory, which propose to account for some behaviors as incidental contingencies or fortuitous accidents, psychoanalytic thinking would tend to view such explanations as naïve, simplistic, or superficial.  

What Does Psychoanalysis Tell Us About Action?

Psychoanalysis proposes to describe mind and behavior as meaningful and understandable.  Thus, our lives are the products of our being.  Our intentions, as well as our accidents, are worthy of understanding.  While critics may argue that psychoanalytic theories make too much out of too little, the supposed error is committed in the pursuit of knowledge, with an implicit expectation and respect for the complexity of life.  It should also be noted that such an attitude is reflective of an appreciation for the humanism of psychology, not its mechanization or reduction to biochemistry.

What is the Focus of Psychoanalytic Explanation?

Even if one could demonstrate, once and for all, that the universe and life are random, nonsensical phenomena, this would not contradict the view of determinism.  The focus of psychoanalytic explanation is on the human experience of life.  What is characteristically human is our mind’s proclivity for making sense out of nonsense.  We cannot tolerate being in a state of uncertainty or confusion.  Psychological determinism addresses this characteristic of being human by suggesting that all human knowledge, no matter how sophisticated, abstract, or profound, is always, ultimately, human.

Freud and Breuer’s Studies in Hysteria

Freud’s and Breuer’s Studies in Hysteria are classic examples of the humanity inherent in a view of psychological determinism.  In their investigation and treatment of hysteria, they stressed how patients’ peculiar behaviors stemmed from important but forgotten episodes of their lives.  Hysteria, understood in the context of a person’s life, represents a meaningful continuity of being, such that the mental life of the patient is respected as relevant and the patient is further accepted as exhibiting psychological processes common to humankind.  The “logic” of symptoms soon led to an appreciation for the logic of dreams, mistakes, jokes, and slips of the tongue.  With acceptance of determinism, we can never take life’s events for granted again!

For more on psychological determinism and other psychoanalytic concepts, see the course Classical Psychoanalytic Theory.  If you would like to receive a specialization Certificate in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy and learn more about issues of interest, please see our home study psychology continuing education courses, available online.

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