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Richard Webster

Why Freud Was Wrong

Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
The prestige once enjoyed by psychoanalysis may have declined considerably from the level it had attained in the first half of the twentieth century, but it still is practised as a therapy. And in addition, psychoanalytic theory continues to be influential in literary criticism and other cultural activities. Many of Freud's ideas have seeped into common parlance ('Freudian slip') and terms such as 'complex' are used by people who may have little if any idea of their provenance. It's still quite common to find Freud's name cited alongside those of Galileo and Darwin as one of the thinkers responsible for a series of radical revolutions in how we humans understand our place in the Universe; Galileo showed that the Sun, not the Earth, was the centre of the solar system; Darwin told us we were part of the animal kingdom and descended from apes; and Freud revealed that much of our mental life is unknown to us and takes place in the hidden depths of the Unconscious. But does Freud deserve his place in this pantheon? Yes and no, according to Webster.
If the psychoanalytic movement were not important or if it had made little intellectual impact, Freud's pseudo-science could be ignored or briefly rebutted. But Freud's influence on contemporary intellectual life has been so large and his psychological assumptions have proved so enduring that it is difficult to re-examine human sexual behaviour—or any other form of human behaviour—without finding that our perception of this behaviour is distorted by psychoanalysis.
As this passage indicates, Webster regards psychoanalysis unequivocally as pseudoscience. He is not, of course, unique in holding that opinion, but there is more to his book than this. He believes that Freud took on the role of messiah both in the eyes of his followers and also in the idea that he had of himself. Although he was an atheist, Freud's way of thinking was shaped by Judaeo–Christian preconceptions and linguistic tropes, and psychoanalysis has many of the features of a religion.

The book is in three parts. Part I describes how psychoanalysis began and developed. Part II is about what happened when Freud's ideas became widely known and attracted an expanding and sometimes fractious body of followers (the 'Church' and its 'Gospel'). Both Parts are amply provided with citations from the writings of Freud and others. Part III contains a series of essays on various aspects of psychoanalysis, including a discussion of what kind of theory should be devised to replace it. I found this section to be less readable than the first two sections, which give a sense of action and drama because they tell a story that is often surprising in its sheer oddness.

In the main the book is an intellectual biography of Freud, starting with his early studies in Paris under Jean-Paul Charcot and continuing with his collaboration in Vienna, first with Joseph Breuer and later with Wilhelm Fleiss. With all of these, but especially Fleiss, Freud formed close relationships that amounted almost to adulation; it is extraordinary how profoundly he was influenced by their often outlandish theories. All three contributed many of the ideas which later went to form psychoanalysis, but this is particularly true of Fleiss, an ear, nose and throat surgeon who believed he had discovered the cause of 'neurasthenia' in the nose. He treated one of Freud's patients with almost fatal results, but this did not diminish Freud's admiration.

It is remarkable how frank Freud often was in describing his cases, revealing things, such as his frequent near-bullying of patients to get them to accept his interpretations. At times he even resorted to pressing the patients' heads with his hands, as if to squeeze the desired 'confession' out of them. (Incidentally, the resemblance between psychoanalysis and the Roman Catholic ritual of confession is something that Webster brings out.)

Fleiss invented an obscure numerological theory which Freud also adopted. And it was Fleiss who advocated the evolutionary theory of Ernst Haeckel, a follower of Darwin, whose 'biogenetic law' encapsulated the idea that the development of the embryo recapitulates evolution, thus affording clues to the past even in the absence of fossil evidence.

Freud adopted this theory too and applied it to the supposed development of human infant.sexuality, something that has not been widely recognised or admitted by Freud's followers. One can understand why.

For the unretouched version of Haeckel's 'biogenetic law' which I have tried to present here is so strange that, if there were not so many other examples of Freud's credulity, it would be difficult to believe that so influential a thinker ever seriously entertained such a hypothesis, let alone based his entire intellectual system upon it.
But Freud had no qualms about following this theory wherever it led him, and it was nothing if not far-reaching.
For by applying these theories it was possible not only to 'explain' the laws of the unconscious, but also to relate the sexual anatomy of prehistoric birds to the obstinacy of two-year-old children and the organic evolution of crocodiles to the meanness of Viennese aristocrats.
It's not just the strangeness of Haeckel's ideas that were the problem, but also the fact that they were wrong.
What Freud never calculated upon was that the ideas he had stolen from evolutionary biology as theoretical gold and buried in his own psychoanalytic garden would disintegrate in the course of time into the mere ash of speculation. Yet this is what happened when Haeckel's biogenetic law was discredited or repudiated by professional biologists.
Probably the idea that is most often associated with Freud is that of the Unconscious. Freud did not invent this but it certainly was a vital component of his system. But Webster finds it to be lacking in credibility.
One of the central objections to Freud's methodology…is that by positing the existence of an Unconscious he effectively deepens the very mysteries which he claims to unravel. For the Unconscious is not simply an occult entity for whose real existence there is no palpable evidence. It is an illusion produced by language—a kind of intellectual hallucination.
This is exactly the view of later critics such as Nick Chater and Timothy D, Wilson, who find that there are many unconscious brain processes but no unconscious thoughts.

Freud came to attach great importance to dreams, which he considered to be exclusively concerned with wish-fulfilment. Webster provides some amusing examples of the expedients Freud adopted to extract this interpretation from patients' dreams, sometimes in direct contradiction of their obvious meaning.

So arbitrary and self-confirming is the method of interpretation which Freud applies to dreams that his arguments would scarcely merit either examination or refutation were it not for the central role which they played both in the development of his mature psychoanalytic theory and, by extension, in the entire evolution of modern psychiatry.
In the early years of his practice Freud believed he was treating 'hysteria' or, later, 'neurasthenia', the first of which is of very dubious validity today and the second non-existent. But Freud considered both to be organic, and in fact he was probably right in a way, because it is clear from many of the case descriptions that the patients had organic diseases such as temporal lobe epilepsy. It was only later that his scope became ever wider to include the treatment of the psychological disorders he called neuroses, which affected pretty well everyone. In doing this, Webster believes, Freud was in effect equating his concept of disease with the Christian doctrine of Original Sin.
The course taken by Freud in starting as a healer who at first dispenses supposedly miraculous cures to a small number of sick people and then subsequently universalises the concept of illness so that all individuals might be deemed to be in need of a physician, should be familiar to us. For a similar pattern of development is implicit in the doctrines of Jesus and the subsequent development of the Christian Church.
The later development of psychoanalysis once it attained the status of a 'Church' was, like that of Christianity, marked by the arising of numerous heresies. Much the biggest defection was that of C.G. Jung, whom Freud at first singled out as his closest disciple and appointed successor. Much has been written about this famous feud and I had already read a good deal about it, mostly from the Jungian side. Even so, I found Webster's treatment interesting. He has a nice metaphor to epitomise the difference between the respective therapeutic inclinations of Freud and Jung. Freud was concerned with the patient's past, Jung with the future.
Whereas Freud was interested in the acorn—the supposed infantile origins of a neurosis—Jung became more and more interested in the oak. To a much greater extent than Freud he began to focus on present conflicts and on the future—on the 'life task' that remained to be accomplished.
Webster finds Jung and Freud to be more alike than might be expected. Although Jung was overtly sympathetic to religion and Freud was not, both men assumed the role of seers and gurus for their disciples and indeed themselves. I found myself wishing that Webster had written a correspondingly detailed study of Jung.

The concluding chapter in Part II provides a mini-biography of Anna, Freud's youngest daughter who became his companion and closest disciple in the closing years of his life. Freud, surprisingly, analysed her himself and she became an analyst; after his death she guarded his reputation and his documents closely. I had known little about her previously and I was glad to have this information.

Until recently, most of what I knew about Freud had been gleaned from books about Jung, and for some time I've felt the need to redress the balance, especially since reading complimentary remarks about Freud in writers I respect, such as F.L. Lucas. A year or so ago I read Peter Gay's A Godless Jew: Freud, Atheism, and the Making of Psychoanalysis. Gay, according to Webster, was 'a fully accredited psychoanalyst', and certainly I found his book to be less objective than I expected. However his major biography, Freud: A Life for Our Time, has been widely praised and I intend to read it in the future. But I want to digest Webster's book thoroughly first.


%T Why Freud Was Wrong
%S Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis
%A Webster, Richard
%I HarperCollins
%C London
%D 1995
%G ISBN 0 00 255568 9
%P x+673pp
%K psychology
%O afterword, appendices, notes, bibliography
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