Sunday, May 29, 2011

Freud’s Slip


Psychoanalysis and Freudianism have taken many blows in the past 30 years or so. All of which have steadily worn out Freud’s welcome in scientific circles. Certainly in most Psychology departments in universities Freudianism as science is not taken seriously. In fact Freudianism seems to be taken much more seriously by literary critics as a way to analyse literature than by psychologists. All of this is ignored by Freudians who living and working in a hermetically intellectually sealed environment ignore all this while the scientific foundations of Freudianism wither away to reveal nothing.1

Freudians were in many respects pretty annoying in their cult like behaviour and absolute dogmatic certainty. Perhaps the most annoying feature of Freudianism was its capacity to be un-falsifiable. For example if a patient agreed with a Freudian interpretation that proved it, if the person denied it than that proved it too because the person was repressing the truth hence denial especially vehement denial was proof it was true. In other words heads I win tales you lose logic. And of course the Freudian technique of analysing their critics by postulating Freudian reasons why they were denying i.e. repressing the truth of Freudianism rather than deal with the criticism was nothing more than a particularly "clever" ad hominium. Another techniques used by some Freudians was to say that only those who had been Freudians or who had undergone psychoanalysis were entitled to criticise Freudianism. The problem with that was that why would a critic do that? If he/she didn’t think psychoanalysis would work why would they do it? And of course if a critic did do it the Freudian would attribute failure of the treatment to the negativity, etc, of the critic. So once again it would be tails I win, heads you lose. In order to submit to this form of treatment someone would have to think it worked. If they don’t think it would work why would they?2

Freud was basically an astute literary artist. He constructed a myth, which was in many ways appealing, and created a cult like atmosphere around himself. He was thought to have constructed a hidden series of keys into the human mind, when what he created was a convoluted series of rather far out dubious theories with little to no empirical support.3

An excellent example of myth making is his story of the discovery of infantile repression and oedipal fantasies. This was supposedly the key discovery that led to the birth of Psychoanalysis. In it Freud had for a number of years been dealing with patients who told him that they had, at very young ages, been sexually molested by their fathers. Freud was at first convinced that the serious neurotic symptoms of many of his patients were the result of this abuse. While diligently probing and collecting these stories from his patients Freud began to discover that these stories were fantastic and almost certainly false. So he reluctantly abandoned his “Seduction” theory and concluded that these stories were infantile incestuous fantasies or screen memories for infantile sexual desire toward a parent. These desires were repressed and projected onto the parent because they were considered unacceptable in the mind of the infant. Since these desires were not being properly sublimated they came out in later life as neurotic symptoms. Thus here we have screen memories, neurosis, the Oedipus / Electra complex, projection, repression etc.4 The problem with this account is that it is simply not true.

Freud’s account had until almost 20 years ago been accepted by most. Many of whom remarked about how brave Freud was to change his mind like that. (Sort of like the myth of Freud’s heroic self analysis.) Those who disagreed generally talked about how on earth could Freud NOT believe his patient’s stories of abuse? And they mentioned the disastrous influence of Freudianism on dealing with the sexual abuse of children. Basically that the attitude of Freudians was one of attributing stories of sexual abuse to child fantasy and of denying its importance in the development of later psychological difficulties. Of course it now appears that child sexual abuse is more prevalent than previously thought, so that the Freudian attitude seems remarkably callous.5

However it appears that both the Freudians and the Critics had it wrong. It appears that the great majority of Freud’s patients never told him they were sexually abused when very young by a parent. How do we know this? Why from Freud’s own writings. Freud was initially convinced that the root of hysteria and certain neuroses was early, very early, sexual abuse by an adult. Thus in Freud’s early works we read:

‘…before they come for analysis the patients know nothing about these scenes’ and ‘are indignant as a rule if we warn them that such scenes are going to emerge. Only the strongest compulsion of the treatment can induce them to embark on a reproduction of them.’6
Freud then recounts that his patients would tell him that “…they have no feelings of remembering the scenes”7 and further would tell Freud “emphatically of their unbelief”.8

Freud also tells us in one of his early writings that:

…traces [of these childhood traumas] are never present in conscious memory, only in the symptoms of the illness.9
If a patient denies it well; Freud decided not to give up. For he says:

Having diagnosed a case of neurasthenic neurosis with certainty and having classified its symptoms correctly, we are in a position to translate the symptomatology into aetiology; and we may then boldly demand confirmation of our suspicions from the patient. We must not be led astray by initial denials. If we keep firmly to what we have inferred we shall in the end conquer every resistance by emphasizing the unshakable nature of our convictions.10
Aside from being a early example of the heads I win tails you lose logic of Psychoanalysis the above makes it quite clear that it was not Freud’s patients who were telling him about early childhood sexual abuse but Freud who was telling them and when they said no he was transmuting the alleged abuse into symptoms and already conjuring up the idea of repression.. Of course his patient's denials were proof of the extent of their symptoms and thus indicated the “truth” of Freud’s conjecture.

Thus the conclusion is; to quote:

…the clear implication of his words is that the patients did not themselves report sexual experiences from infancy – these were inferences made by Freud himself on the basis of a theoretical postulate.11
It should be noted here that Freud was not terribly interested in later childhood sexual abuse but in this very early childhood abuse created out of Freud’s theory of the origin of hysteria and neuroses. Also in his early writings Freud did not mention fathers much but referred to a variety of adult sexual abusers. The story about fathers was a Freudian polemical “improvement”.12

So what happened? Well Freud later claimed that it was very hard to believe that fathers, including possibly his own, could have abused so many children and besides the claims were not credible. Of course what actually was happening was that Freud’s own theory of the origin of hysteria and neuroses was breaking down on its inherent improbabilities. So to salvage it he resorted to a sleight of hand.

What he did was declare that the childhood seduction scenes which he had deduced from his patient's symptoms and which they had denied were his patient's fantasies! The fact that his patients had, apparently never claimed such early sexual abuse, was simply ignored. As mentioned above later sexual abuse, which patients actually remembered was also simply ignored. Thus Freud decided that repressed fantasies of sex with a parent were at the root of hysteria and neurosis and that these repressed fantasies of sex came out in screen memories of being sexually abused at a very young age, by a parent, generally a father. The fact that Freud’s patients never, apparently, told him about such memories was whisked away and Freud was free to create the Oedipus, Elektra and other complexes.13

Thus the inferences or more properly fantasies of Freud about the origin of his patient’s neuroses was turned into his patient's fantasies despite their denial of the reality of Freud’s fantasies. Neat trick!

The implications of this for evaluating Freud’s work are clear. It makes taking  seriously Freud’s ideas a good deal harder, and indicates that Freud was anything but a careful Scientist and more like a myth maker. Further it indicates powerfully the sheer lack of evidence for Freud’s theoretical postulates. It also makes the evidentiary value of Freud’s case studies much more dubious. Aside from also indicating Freud’s dogmatism and willingness to impose theory on data regardless of the data.14

A related question is why, despite the fact that the real story is quite clear in Freud’s own writings, those clear implications were ignored. I suspect that the myth of Freud was quite simply very seductive. The fact that students / experts on Freud for well over 50+ years apparently couldn’t read him clearly and missed this doesn’t say much for their powers of reasoning. Obviously the art of reading Freud included the art of not reading Freud.

1. Crew, Frederick, Freud’s Legacy in Dispute, A New York Review Book, New York, 1995, pp. 31-74, 285-299, Crews, Frederick, Follies of the Wise, Shoemaler Hoard, Emeryville CA, 2006, pp. 43-61, 134-152. For the best demolition of the “Science” of Psychoanalysis see Grunbaum, Adolf, The Foundations of Psychoanalysis, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1984, pp. 159-172, 177-189, 246-266, 273-278.

2. IBID Crews, 1995 pp. 106-135.

3. IBID, Crews, 1995, pp. 31-74, & Crews, 2006, pp. 42-87.

4. Footnote 1.

5. Footnotes 1 & 2. For a critique of Freud for not believing the stories his patients told him, which it turns out his patients never actually told him, see Masson, Jeffrey, The Assault on Truth, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, 1984.

6. Esterson, Allen, Seductive Mirage, Open Court, Chicago, 1993, p. 17, quoting from Freud’s The Aetiology of Hysteria.

7. IBID.

8. IBID.

9. IBID, From Freud's Further Remarks on the Neuro-Psychoses of Defence.

10. IBID, From Freud's Sexuality in the Aetiology of Neuroses.

11. IBID, Esterson, p. 19.

12. IBID, pp. 11-32, 95-114.

13. IBID, pp. 25-32, 132-153.

14. IBID, pp. 241-254, Crew, 1995 pp. 285-299, Crews, 2006, pp. 42-70.

Pierre Cloutier

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