Monday, 3 November 2014

Freud revisited

From Wikipedia

After some pondering I bought Kindle version of the Freud Files and ploughed through it in a few days. It’s a surprisingly easy read in spite of hundreds of notes and references.

So what does it say about Sigmund Freud? It is not possible to sum up such a mass of detail in a single blog post, but subtle charlatan and overdeveloped ego are a good start. Prurient and possibly bonkers are not far off the mark too.

He certainly seems to have faked evidence, implanted false memories in some of his patients and probably had sex with his sister-in-law too. However it is a complex story and others might reach different conclusions. Not dramatically different I suspect.

The book begins by describing how Freud and his followers pursued a policy of blackboxing psychoanalysis to promote the impression that Freudian psychoanalysis was the only legitimate psychological narrative and render it immune to criticism.

This is pretty much what they seem to have done for the rest of Freud’s life and for some time afterwards. During his lifetime, Freudian psychoanalysis became a business, a profitable enterprise worth defending, so defend it they did.

Not that the blackboxing of Freudian psychoanalysis was motivated by money - it probably wasn't. Freud's mysterious ego seems to have been the driver. After his death, the myths appear to have been nurtured by his devoted daughter Anna plus those fee-earning acolytes. 

Internal critics were not only ejected, but liable to be treated to the most obnoxious criticism, their apostasy often being ascribed to psychological causes. To give a comparatively mild example, take this comment on Ernest Jones' biography back in the fifties. Jones was one of Freud's most devoted followers. 

Ottawa Citizen – Feb 9, 1956

Not an unusual reaction by Freud, although he tended to clothe his denunciations in more psychological language than louse. It's a remarkably unconvincing retort, but somehow it passed muster in the fifties. To many an uncritical journalist, Freud was a scientific hero on a par with Darwin and Copernicus. Copy and paste has a long and inglorious history.

Even so, after reading the book I'm still not sure how Freud managed his reputation with such startling success. He was supposed to be a scientist following the scientific method so his secretive methods and untestable theories should have rung numerous alarm bells.

In many areas of the psychological sciences they did ring, but presumably not loud enough. Overall the book left me with the view that ruthlessly promoted narratives can be vastly more powerful than the truth, but these days we know that anyway.


Demetrius said...

Then there is what we did not know. notably in the field of neurology, never mind immune system function etc. Back when Freud was king I was very unpopular when I suggested that what went on between the ears may have been chemically and physically more important than a bloke chatting away taking notes.

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - especially when the chap was Freud who altered his notes afterwards.