WHY FREUD MATTERS
GEORGE P. DVORSKY
P. Dvorsky is a Canadian bioethicist, transhumanist, futurist
and producer of the Sentient Developments blog and podcast.
He is also a contributing editor at io9.com
-- a journal of science and science fiction.
been dead for nearly 70 years, but Sigmund Freud’s provocative
theories are still a huge part of psychology, neuroscience,
and culture — this despite the fact that many of his ideas
were mindbogglingly, catastrophically wrong. Here’s why
Freud just won’t go away.
him or hate him, there’s no denying that Sigmund Freud
was a giant in his field. When it comes to his influence on
psychology, psychoanalysis and our theories of mind, he’s
often credited for kindling a revolution; with Freud, it’s
kind of a before-and-after thing.
the 20th century has often been called Freud’s century.
His books landed with the subtlety of hand grenades, featuring
such seminal titles as The Interpretation of Dreams
(1900), The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901),
and his Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1915-1916).
legacy has transcended science, with his ideas permeating deep
into Western culture. Rarely does a day go by where we don’t
find ourselves uttering a term drawn from his work: Mommy
and daddy issues; arrested development; death wishes; Freudian
slips; phallic symbols; anal retentiveness; defense mechanisms;
cathartic release, and so on and on.
psychologist and Freud critic John Kihlstrom himself admits,
“More than Einstein or Watson and Crick, more than Hitler
or Lenin, Roosevelt or Kennedy, more than Picasso, Eliot, or
Stravinsky, more than the Beatles or Bob Dylan, Freud's influence
on modern culture has been profound and long-lasting.”
his legacy is a shaky one. Freud has, for the most part, fallen
completely out of favour in academia. Virtually no institution
in any discipline would dare use him as a credible source. In
1996, Psychological Science reached the conclusion
that “[T]here is literally nothing to be said, scientifically
or therapeutically, to the advantage of the entire Freudian
system or any of its component dogmas." As a research paradigm,
it’s pretty much dead.
of Freud’s methodologies, techniques and conclusions have
been put into question. Moreover, his theories have even proved
damaging — and even dangerous — to certain segments
of the population. His perspectives on female sexuality and
homosexuality are reviled, causing many feminists to refer to
him by a different kind of ‘F’ word. Some even argue
that his name should be spelled ‘Fraud’ and not
is truly in a class of his own,” writes Todd Dufresne,
an outspoken critic. “Arguably no other notable figure
in history was so fantastically wrong about nearly every important
thing he had to say. But, luckily for him, academics have been
— and still are — infinitely creative in their efforts
to whitewash his errors, even as lay readers grow increasingly
dumbfounded by the entire mess.”
a doubt, many of these criticisms and valid and totally justified.
But a renewed look at his legacy shows that Freud’s contribution
is far from over — both in terms of his influence on culture
even for a guy who died in 1939, his work is incredibly out
of date. We’ve learned much about the human brain and
the way our psychologies work since that time — but he
got the ball rolling. Much of today’s work is still predicated
on many of his original insights. Some areas of inquiry have
been refined and expanded, while others abandoned and dismissed
altogether in favor of new theories. This is good. This is how
we take a look at where Freud was right, let’s consider
where he went wrong.
primary trouble with Freud is that, while his ideas appear intriguing
and even common sensical, there’s very little empirical
evidence to back them up. Modern psychology has produced very
little to substantiate many of his claims.
instance, there’s no scientific evidence in support of
the idea that boys lust after their mothers and hate their fathers.
He was totally, utterly wrong about gender. And his notion of
penis envy is now both laughable and tragic.
no proof of the id, ego, or superego. There’s also no
evidence to support the notion that human development proceeds
through oral, anal, phallic and genital stages. Nor that the
interference, or arresting, of these stages leads to specific
example, he theorized that homosexuality was a failure to reconcile
the anal phase, or the Oedipal phase. Which is nonsense. He
also argued that only mature women could orgasm from vaginal
sex, and that women who could only climax via clitoral stimulation
were somehow stunted, stuck at a latent phase. Again, nonsense.
as feminist Lili Hsieh points out, he had some very strange
ideas about gender and sexuality:
of the critique of psychoanalysis as phallocentric or heterosexist
is tied to the unfortunate conflation of femininity and sexuality;
therefore, it is important to review the slippage in Freud's
theory between femininity as the repertoire of sexed life and
that as the logical complementarity to the universal sexuality.
Freud's view of femininity leans predominantly toward the latter,
as he decides in his early theorization that there is only one
kind of libido, i.e., the masculine one. By masculinity of the
libido, Freud means mainly activity, hence he equates femininity
boys are caught in the constant threat of castration, girls
on the other hand are in this sense already castrated, and thus
are faced with an irreparable damage — ‘they feel
seriously wronged . . . and fall victim to “envy for the
penis”’ . . . Freud suggests that for women there
are two possible ways out of penis envy — besides the
more strenuous ways such as neurosis or ‘masculinity complex’
— one of them is a “capacity to carry on an intellectual
profession” . . . the other is having a baby. Both are
thus substitutes for the penis.
also no evidence that Freudian psychotherapy (including psychoanalysis
and free association) is any better than others, including Skinnerian
behavioural therapy (which is diametrically opposed to Freudianism
in terms of methodology), systematic desensitization, or assertiveness
THE UNCONSCIOUS MIND
sure, Freud’s got some problems. But he also nailed a
example, Freud was startlingly correct in his assertion that
we are not masters of our own mind. He showed that human experience,
thought and deeds are determined not by our conscious rationality,
but by irrational forces outside our conscious awareness and
control — forces that could be understood and controlled
by an extensive therapeutic process he called psychoanalysis.
didn’t discover the unconscious mind, of course. That
distinction goes to French psychiatrist Pierre Janet. Freud
was also influenced by his professor Jean Martin Charcot, a
famed neurologist who dabbled in hypnosis. But it was Freud
who took the concept to the next level by breaking it down even
further — and by applying it to psychotherapy and ‘free
associating,’ where patients would openly talk about their
feelings and experiences regardless of how irrelevant, absurd,
or upsetting it sounded.
very few would argue against the idea of the unconscious mind.
Freud’s claim for the central role of the unconscious
mind in human actions was recently explored by experimental
psychologists in a collection of essays called Frontiers
sure, we now know that the unconscious brain doesn’t exist
or function in the way that Freud suggested — but we know
it does in fact exist. The brain performs a myriad number of
tasks in the background, particularly in managing our autonomous
bodily processes, the way it affects our conscious, cognitive
functioning, and how we interpret our surroundings.
says human beings can keep no secrets,” says Michael Roth,
an expert on Freud. “They reveal their innermost selves
with their clothes, with their twitches, with their unconscious
mannerisms; that whatever we do, we're expressing things about
ourselves, for people who have eyes to see and ears to hear.
And I think that this is really the fundamental orientation
astounding revelation offered by Freud is the idea that the
brain can be compartmentalized. Brain function, both in terms
of its biology and the emergent mind, can be broken down into
individual parts. His take on this, of course, was incredibly
primitive. Freud spoke of the ego, id, and superego —
ideas we don’t really accept any more.
his larger idea has gone to influence such thinkers as the cognitive
scientist Marvin Minsky, who talks about the society of mind,
and philosopher of mind Daniel Dennett, who argues on behalf
of the idea that there are multiple models of consciousness
working in parallel.
take on memories continues to be interesting — particularly
suppressed memories. We now know that memories are selective,
and that they’re constantly being rewritten each time
they’re recalled. People retain memories of events not
as they happened, but rather in the way they are active when
memories are being reformed.
Freud's take on defense mechanisms still holds relevance. Few
people, including psychologists, would deny that we all too
regularly employ such defenses as denial, repression, projection,
intellectualization and rationalization. The same can be said
for his ideas on transference and catharsis.
more, as regards Oedipal and Electra issues, few would deny
that there’s at least some modicum of truth to the idea
that many of us carry so-called mommy and daddy issues. Human
psychology is a very complex and fuzzy thing, and it’s
not always easy for science to definitively prove or compartmentalize
something that just feels right.
though we no longer subscribe to Freudian dream interpretation,
some of our dreams are so blatantly driven by our conscious
and subconscious desires and fears that it’s obvious Freud
was onto something. To deny this would be hallucinatory, ludicrous
— and completely unfair to his legacy.
also important to keep some of his ideas in context.
his views on homosexuality, for example. Though many critics
are loathe to admit it, he was actually very progressive for
his time. Unlike most of his peers, Freud believed that homosexuality
resulted from arrested development — but he refused to
characterize it as an illness, and did not believe that it should
a letter written to an American mother who asked him for advice
about her son’s homosexuality, Freud wrote:
is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of,
no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness;
we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function produced
by a certain arrest of sexual development. Many highly respectable
individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals,
several of the greatest among them (Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo
da Vinci, etc.). It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality
as a crime, and cruelty too.
for Freudian psychotherapy, it lives on — but barely.
These days, only one in about 20,000 Americans still use it.
But that’s not to imply it doesn’t work, or that
it’s not valued by those who depend on it. Elyn Saks,
a law professor who suffers from schizophrenia, says that without
it, her mental health would be seriously compromised.
also important to remember that we live in the age of Prozac;
it’s much easier to send a patient home with a bottle
of pills than to talk things out.
also important to remember that psychoanalysis is not about
making patients normal, or even about curing them. Rather it’s
about revealing deeper insights into a person’s psyche.
Then, armed with that information, they can make desired changes.
It’s as the old adage says, “Know thyself.”
Drew Westen describes his experience with psychotherapy:
do sometimes describe feelings or behaviors in therapy that
conform remarkably to aspects of Freud's psychosexual theories
(such as a patient of mine with erectile problems whose associations
to a sexual encounter led to an image of having sex with his
mother, followed by some unpleasant anal imagery). Nevertheless,
psychotherapists who rely on theories derived from Freud do
not typically spend their time lying in wait for phallic symbols.
They pay attention to sexuality, because it is an important
part of human life and intimate relationships and one that is
often filled with conflict.
summation, Westen says there are five broad areas in which the
work of Sigmund Freud remains relevant to psychology: the existence
of unconscious mental processes, the importance of conflict
and ambivalence in behavior, the childhood origins of adult
personality, mental representations as a mediator of social
behavior, and stages of psychological development.
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