A Freud contretemps in the Guardian

The other day I gave a positive take on Fred Crews’s new book, Freud: The Making of an Illusion, which pretty much demolishes—if it weren’t already wrecked—the image of Freud as a relentless truth seeker who remade our view of humanity. Crews has been examining Freud and his “science” for years, and this is his latest and last attempt to show that the man was a fraud: a greedy, idea-stealing, ambitious confector of bad ideas.

What really irks me about Freud is the profoundly pseudoscientific nature of his “discoveries”, which were not based on on consistent research that was tested, criticized, and then affirmed by others, but comprised mere anecdotes from his case studies, forced into the Procrustean bed of  “science”. Ideas such as repression and the Oedipus and Elektra complexes were unsubstantiated fantasies, yet for years were integral parts of psychoanalytic therapy. How many people paid lots of money for no help at all, or were even damaged by this junk?

Even the Guardian, in a new published dialogue between Crews and Susie Orbach, a British writer and psychoanalytical psychotherapist (h/t reader Diki), admits this at the outset:

Since Freud’s death in 1939, however, a growing number of dissenting voices have questioned his legacy and distanced themselves from his ideas. Now Freud is viewed less as a great medical scientist than as a powerful storyteller of the human mind whose texts, though lacking in empirical evidence, should be celebrated for their literary value.

Well, “powerful storytelling” is just that: storytelling. It’s not science, just as the “powerful storytelling” of the Bible is neither science nor fact.  And really, should we “celebrate” stories that were used in attempted cures of the mentally disturbed, but had no effect—or detrimental ones?

The email give-and-take between Crews and Orbach is enlightening, with Crews relentlessly hurling at Orhbach a single repeated question: what was true about Freud’s theories? Orbach evades, saying that, well, Freud did initiate the “talking cure”, regardless of the efficacy of his methods. (Crews points out that “a better candidate for empathic talk therapy would be the Swiss Paul Dubois”.)

And Freud wasn’t very “empathic”. He hectored and was mean to his patients, often didn’t listen to them or even fell asleep when they were speaking, and instead of really trying to understand them, shoehorned their free-associations into his own fallacious ideas, regarding patients as cash cows and springboards to his own renown.

Here’s a sampling of the dialogue:

Orbach:  You [Crews] claim you left Freud 30 years ago but your continued obsession with the man, with his work, with proving that Freud was contradictory, goes to show the continuing significance, not of Freud the man per se, but of his ideas and impact on a wider, cultural level. His work has had an impact of such magnitude that it’s not possible for us to think about what it means to be human, what motivates us, what we yearn for, without those very questions being Freudian.

Freud’s conceptions of the human mind and its complexity, whether exactly accurate, are not at issue here.

But Crews’s examination and demolishing of Freud doesn’t show that Freud’s ideas were right, only that they were influential and need reexamination. Psychoanalysts and cultural studies professors, infatuated with Freud, are loath to give him up, even though, as a scientist, he was a miserable failure. Crews bores in:

If, as you say, psychoanalytic theory has functioned as a powerfully shaping “explanatory tool”, surely it matters whether Freud’s explanations ever made empirical sense. If they didn’t, the likelihood is considerable that he raised false hopes, unfairly distributed shame and blame, retarded fruitful research and education, and caused patients’ time and money to be needlessly squandered. Indeed, all of those effects have been amply documented.

In your writings, you assert that Freud’s emphasis on the Oedipus complex was androcentric and wrong; that he misrepresented female sexual satisfaction and appears to have disapproved of it; that envy of the penis, if it exists at all, is not a key determinant of low self-esteem among women; and that his standard of normality was dictated by patriarchal bias, thus fostering “the control and subjugation of women”.

This list, which could be readily expanded, constitutes an indictment not only of harmful conclusions but also of the arbitrary, cavalier method by which they were reached. Yet elsewhere in your texts, you refer to Freud’s “discovery of the unconscious” and to his “discovery of an infantile and childhood sexuality”. Were those alleged breakthroughs achieved in a more objective manner than the “discovery” of penis envy? What are the grounds on which any of Freud’s claims deserve to be credited?

Orbach’s response, that she and Crews are on “different planets”, is pretty much on the mark, for she sees Freud as some kind of unspecified humanist even if lacking empirical achievement, and indeed, somehow finds merit in Freud being part of the great tradition of science that becomes passé:

Orbach: Knowledge is provisional. It is not static, and the kinds of knowledge of the consulting room exquisitely express this. This is not to say we don’t know anything. Therapists build up considerable knowledge about the way the human mind deals with the indigestible. People don’t come because they are happy, they come because their life has stalled. They perceive themselves to have got stuck, they feel emotionally constipated. They suffer with intrusive self-critical thoughts. Addressing these things is the meat and potatoes of our work. It is out of this engagement that our understandings emerge. Subjectivity, particularly in the process of self-reflection and potential change, is not empirical per se. It is a lived experience, and analysis provides a frame for the individual to investigate their modes of being, feeling and thinking. Psychoanalysis is the study of human subjectivity. It is a clinical practice. It theorises the vicissitudes of human attachment, of the psychological development of mind and body that occur within a relational, cultural field.

But of course that says nothing about Freud, and Crews reminds her “But weren’t we talking about Sigmund Freud?” He then zeroes in on empiricism again:

Crews: I find it striking that Freud vanished from your discourse as soon as I asked you to say why we ought to believe any of his propositions. That issue is crucial to an assessment of his legacy. His unsupported claims – for example, that repressed incidents from the first years of life can be reliably unearthed; that, thanks to phylogenetic programming, all toddlers wish to kill their same-sex parent and copulate with the other one; that women are biologically inferior, childlike, devious and masochistic – have yielded many noxious consequences.

One such consequence has been an ongoing disregard, by psychoanalysts and their academic allies, of the principle that hypotheses ought to be held accountable to a preponderance of evidence. Freud’s psychological writings contain not a single item of raw data. We meet only “psychoanalytic findings”, suave stories, evasions and heroic posturing. That charade has seduced many an unwary professor, including yours truly 50 years ago. Even today, regrettably, the Freudian vogue in its least rational (Lacanian) form remains entrenched in the humanities.

Freud, though not on hand to defend himself, has a lot to answer for. What can you enter on the other side of the ledger?

Orbach has nothing to enter except a few mutterings about Freud’s contribution to our understanding of bisexuality, which turns out not to be the concept Orbach actually uses, and even one that wasn’t Freud’s own idea, but was stolen from his friend Wilhelm Fliess.

I found this dialogue illuminating, for it shows the conflict over Freud between a hard-nosed empiricist and (to my mind) a soft-brained psychoanalyst.  By now I’ve read a fair amount by and about Freud, and I have to say that I can’t see a substantial “contribution”. It’s time to pass the man by and try to clean up the mess he left in cultural studies and psychotherapy.


  1. Curt Nelson
    Posted August 21, 2017 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, it’s irritating to me that my high school psychology class was mainly about Freud’s ideas, and Jung’s. This was in the late seventies and I think it was pitched as “not right but a decent approximation.”

    That class put me right off psychology – I knew intuitively that Freud’s ideas were ridiculous.

  2. Posted August 21, 2017 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Actually, science is just now kicking into high gear. In science we correct our mistakes and move on. Not so the flimflam men.

  3. Historian
    Posted August 21, 2017 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    As I mentioned in the previous post on Freud, in the world of psychology and psychiatry there seems to be no empirical evidence as to which school of psychology has a better “cure” rate, or what even a cure means. All evidence is anecdotal, self-reported by the practitioner. Over the last several years, there has been a big debate in the treatment of mental disorders as to the value of pills versus a placebo. I think psychologists and psychiatrists can do a pretty good job in diagnosing mental disorders, but as to treating them, we have no idea as to how effective any school of psychology is. I think also that it would be very difficult to design and implement a valid scientific study that could make this determination.

    • Posted August 21, 2017 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      One argument against the placebo effect is that antidepressants take weeks to become effective. I’ve been on various drugs to control depression and OCD. If it’s a placebo effect why is it only the combination I am on now that has proven effective? It’s not like after half a dozen failures I had higher expectations this time around.

      • Tom
        Posted August 21, 2017 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

        Yes, same here.
        Had the AD’s worked more rapidly I might have been spared a lot of bother so I can confirm some AD’s do what is claimed on the box and are not just placeboes.

  4. squidmaster
    Posted August 21, 2017 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    I am a psychiatrist and neuroscientist and I have been an outspoken critic of Freud (and other pseudoscientific ideas that have crept into psychiatry) since I first heard an analyst expound upon penis envy as the explanation for why a client’s little girl liked to steal pens from the pocket of his jacket (really!). I haven’t read this book yet, but I shall in short order.

    It’s interesting that the defense of Freudian ideas often consists of statements that ‘so much of modern literature has Freudian elements’. That may be true, but the most likely explanation is that the authors, having read Freud, put those ideas into their work. I find it interesting that the central conflicts in Sophocles play, Oidipos Tyrannos, concern, among other things, whether humans really have free will if their fate is dictated by the gods. Jocosta (his mother) hung herself and Oidipos blinded himself when they realized that, while they tried to thwart the will of the gods, their efforts failed.

    Although this is a generalization, the same psychiatrists that embrace Freud are also likely to embrace SCAM therapies like acupuncture and herbal treatments. Interestingly, again, this is a generalization, the same folks are often not interested in discussions of the evidence base for psychosocial treatments (there is a decent literature in support of several flavors of talk or behavioral therapy for a range of disorders), because they ‘know’ that it works.

    It’s frustrating. I lead discussions in an evidence based psychiatry seminar and the most impassioned arguments center around my calling psychoanalytic theory and SCAM treatments pseudo-science. The assertions would be familiar to the readership: Insistence on evidence is a ‘belief system’ and no more valid that ‘belief’ in spiritual healing or herbal wraps; Some phenomena, like personal experience in psychotherapy, are simply not amenable to scientific investigation; Why do you want to deny patients a treatment that they say helps them?.

    • Historian
      Posted August 21, 2017 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

      I have to admit that I have been dubious as to the benefits of psychiatry, but I am trying to keep an open mind. In that spirit, I hope that you would care to comment on the following questions, assuming that you see patients or feel knowledgeable enough to answer them. Thanks.

      1. What school of psychiatry or psychology do you subscribe to?

      2. How do you determine if a patient is “cured” or at least substantially better than before coming to see you?

      3. What is your “cure” rate? That is, what do you estimate is the percentage of patients that see you end up as substantially better because of seeing you as opposed to the percentage of patients that despite your best efforts seem not to have made any progress?

      4.I may be wrong, but I gather that most psychiatrists subscribe drugs to most patients. Do you think, on average, that drugs are more effective than placebos? I realize that drugs may help certain patients under certain conditions.

      5. Finally, could you suggest any scientifically valid study that could be done to evaluate the many different approaches to handling mental disorders? In other words, is there any way to go beyond the self-reporting of practitioners as to the effectiveness of their methods?

      • squidmaster
        Posted August 21, 2017 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

        Interesting questions.

        1. Schools of psychiatry and psychology are pretty much all reflections of some sort of fuzzy thinking. If I had to label myself, I’d call myself an ‘evidence based neuropsychiatrist’.

        2. I’m mostly a researcher, but I’m about 20% clinical. Most of the patients I see are pretty sick, with chronic mental illnesses (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder) or neurobehavioral disorders (dementia, delirium, stroke). Like diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and other chronic illness, we often don’t cure people, but try to minimize symptoms and optimize quality of life. We use standardized rating scales to measure progress, both in symptom management and quality of life. Some people (e.g. those with delirium, some with depression or bipolar disorder), can end up symptom free (or with minimal symptoms). I’d call them just that ‘symptom free’, rather than cured.

        3. Depends on the illness. Schizophrenia is almost never ‘symptom free’, but people with affective disorders (depression or bipolar disorder) often end up symptom free. For example, the rate of full remission in major depression is about 30%. Initial remission rates for alcohol addiction are good (around 50% stay sober for 3 months), but relapse increases rather relentlessly and most relapse after 3 years. Again, think of these illnesses like diabetes: we manage them, try to minimize symptoms and collateral damage, but don’t know how to cure them yet.

        4. Drugs are more effective than placebo if one makes the right diagnosis to begin with. There is a tendency (or many complicated reasons) to over-prescribe drugs for conditions where no evidence exists to support drug treatment or to broaden one’s personal criteria for a disorder so that almost anyone could get the diagnosis.

        5. High quality tudies of both pharmacological and psychosocial interventions are now generally conducted according to standard scientific principles. While there are plenty of reports of crappy studies I could site, the best ones use some variation of a double-blind, placebo controlled design, with verifiable treatment compliance and quantifiable outcomes. These designs can be harder to implement with psychosocial treatments, but efforts to develop manualized therapies, sham (placebo) treatments and, again, quantifiable outcomes have greatly improved the evidence base for these modalities. Anecdotal evidence is the lowest quality of evidence. It’s not worthless, necessarily, but, at best, it gives some indication of that to look at more systematically.

        • Historian
          Posted August 21, 2017 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

          Thanks for taking the time to answer the questions. You’ve given me greater insight into how your profession works.

          • squidmaster
            Posted August 21, 2017 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

            and please excuse the grammatical errors. And it’s ‘cite’ not ‘site’. Can’t correct things….

  5. Posted August 21, 2017 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    How many people paid lots of money for no help at all, or were even damaged by this junk?

    I’ve always said that Freud was more successful at parting the rich from their money than Karl Marx.

  6. Posted August 21, 2017 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    If anyone thinks Freud is a harmless nut they should consider the role ‘repressed memories’ played in the Satanic abuse scare a few years back, and the barbaric ‘treatment’ of autistics in France, which has resulted in at least one fatality.

    Add to that the historic incarceration of ‘hysterical’ women and the cliterodectomies performed on women who ‘failed’ to transfer their orgasms from their clitoris to their vaginas and you have something indistinguishable from the worst religious, sexually abusive cults.

    • Sshort
      Posted August 21, 2017 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      Excellent points.

  7. Tom
    Posted August 21, 2017 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham “The Myth of Repressed Memory” demolished Freuds repressed memory claims some time ago

    • Posted August 21, 2017 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

      Repressed memories are still a major plot device in films, TV and literature, mainly because Freud is still taught in media studies and English literature courses as if it represents cutting edge psychology.

      • Posted August 22, 2017 at 3:56 am | Permalink

        It appears that repressed memory stories are still a factor in some current false claims of sexual abuse that are avidly being investigated by UK police.

    • squidmaster
      Posted August 21, 2017 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

      The real danger with this ‘repressed memory’ nonsense is that people can be persuaded that they remember things that didn’t happen. The brain is not a tape recorder.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 21, 2017 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

        When it gets really evil is when people are accused of historic abuse based on ‘recovered memories’ – which may well have been planted there by a ‘therapist’ with an agenda or a preconception that mental disorders must have been cased by some traumatic event in the patient’s past. I would rate that as no more reliable than ‘facilitated communication’.

        And then some poor scapegoat – usually a relative – is persecuted for serious crimes they probably never committed.


  8. Posted August 21, 2017 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    The three pillars of cultural studies are Marx, Saussure and Freud. They might not be mentioned by name but their theories lie behind most of what gets taught. The buzzwords come from those three: dialectics, the signifier and the signified, the unconscious and the return of the repressed.

    • somer
      Posted August 22, 2017 at 4:08 am | Permalink

      And a lot of this is implicated in the SJW identity politics of today. At any rate, for all the reasons mentioned in comments, I could never stand Freud. However he seems to hold a tawdry fascination for many, and is even seen as a kind of liberator of the human spirit by a segment of the old left.

  9. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted August 21, 2017 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    A friend of mine (the same astronomer friend I mentioned in the ecclipse post after this) said that he recently watched a Mike Wallace-led discussion on homosexuality from the 1960s in which the contenders were: actual homosexuals, anti-gay Christians, and one or two Freudian psychoanalysts. He reports that the evangelicals and gays were both using similar rhetoric as they use today, but the Freudians just seemed like bizarre babble that no one would credit today!!

    In the movie “Zelig”, Woody Allen’s character says ““I worked with Freud in Vienna. We broke over the concept of penis envy. Freud felt that it should be limited to women.””

  10. Alec
    Posted August 21, 2017 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    Hi. I am a big fan of this site and i check it daily. I should like to argue in favour of psychotherapy.

    I am no doctor, i am a layperson and actually spent 5 years in my teen in psychotherapy: worse than some, better than others too. No physical violence, except some with my sister, definitely constant arguments, screams, stress and everything related to a “normal middle-class” family. At 14 years old can be hard to just “grow up some balls” as some people skeptic of psychotherapy might say.

    They are right, but to reach that level of insight one might need help from a doctor. For example, it might not be enough to just say to a person brainwashed from birth that “hell is not real, grow up”. My point is: psychotherapy helped me, and i think in general it does help. It’s not a scam. My doctor was a psychiatrist too, and never believed in acupuncture and herbal treatments (of course).

    I’m sorry to sound like a believer who says “god helped me, so it’s true” but i think it’s wrong to compare psychotherapy to, say, homeopathy.
    How would you treat otherwise various disorders, addictions and “problems” in general? Medicines can absolutely be helpful if not necessary, but I am glad my anguish and depression werent treated like that.
    Yes it does cost money, more than a pack of medicine, but it’s a long-term solution. Psychotherapy makes you free 🙂

    So, I just would like to know if J. Coyne is against the man Freud or against the actual practice of psychoanalysis?

    (I might add that I am from Europe, and i think the vast majority of people skeptical/againt psychotherapy seem to be from the USA; but that’s another story.)

    • Posted August 21, 2017 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

      I think you may be mistaking my argument: I’m not against psychotherapy, as (especially in the CBT forms), it’s been demonstrated to help people. What I oppose is psychoanalysis of the Freudian stripe where one goes several times a week, free associates, and pays big money. I see that as a scam.

      Years ago had a bit of experience with Freudian-style analysis, and it was laughably stupid (the practitioner was highly reputed, too). I gave it up as soon as I could.

      Other forms of talk therapy are far better than somebody who makes a lot of dosh to listen to you free-associate and basically say nothing.

    • squidmaster
      Posted August 21, 2017 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

      Psychoanalytic theory is 101% whaledreck (someone said that, who? Don’t remember). Pschoanalytic practice (patient lying on the couch, free associating; therapist being a ‘blank screen’) has no evidence base beyond anecdote and, just from talking to analysts, I don’t think many folks do this anymore. But psychotherapy (or, as I like to term it, psychosocial therapy, to include recreation therapy, for example) has a fairly solid evidence base. PCC mentions CBT and there are other manualized (there is a manual that tells the therapist how to administer the technique) also have evidence to support them. I have the reputation of ‘not believing in psychotherapy’ with the psychiatry trainees. I assume this is because I teach that psychoanalytic theory is nonsense and people erroneously equate psychoanalysis with psychotherapy.

  11. Kevin
    Posted August 21, 2017 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    When I got a philosophy degree at Stanford, I took a lot of eduction and sociology courses and I cannot remember once hearing Freud’s name (same with Nietzsche!). I never heard any critical remarks about him, though. Just never discussed. This was over twenty years ago. I can’t imagine Freud being discussed all that much anywhere, but I could be wrong.

    From my point of view I do not think Freud has damaged too many people, not like homeopathy or anti-vax. It’s likely history will just slowly make his name fade away.

    • Posted August 21, 2017 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

      Oh, I think he did damage, all right. Read this: http://www.nytimes.com/1990/03/06/science/as-a-therapist-freud-fell-short-scholars-find.html?pagewanted=all&mcubz=0

      Also,he lifted a lot of money from people.

      • Alec
        Posted August 21, 2017 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

        I heard that too. Again, I think Freud as a person could have been very well a bad person. That doesn’t diminish the fact that pschotherapy itself is bad too. It has its benefits, in my opinion.

      • Frank River
        Posted September 29, 2017 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

        He lifted money from people who had too much of it for the purpose of researching the human mind, as well as practically using those wealthy “patients” as lab rats. If he hadn’t done so, he wouldn’t had earned enough to do science and support a family at the same time. Genius!

  12. Alec
    Posted August 21, 2017 at 3:58 pm | Permalink


    Thanks for the answer! I see. Well, maybe because you did not need it, as you are “sane”.

    I guess different things work for different people.

    Thanks again.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted August 21, 2017 at 4:56 pm | Permalink


      You appear not to be reading what Jerry wrote: “…I’m not against psychotherapy, as (especially in the CBT forms), it’s been demonstrated to help people. What I oppose is psychoanalysis of the Freudian stripe…”

      Jerry isn’t dissing psychotherapy. Also you don’t state what sort of psychotherapy helped you!

      • Alec
        Posted August 22, 2017 at 4:59 am | Permalink

        @Michael Fisher

        The psychoanalysis of the Freudian stripe helped me! Which is the one i would suggest if somebody is in pain ;p

    • Posted September 25, 2017 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

      It is mostly “sane” people who need psychotherapy. (I have seen someone with schizophrenia off her medications, and I do not think psychotherapy could be of any use to her; potent drugs were needed.)
      I have also needed psychotherapy, but no professional could give it to me, only friends and support groups; it was quite lay but better than nothing, and helped.
      Once I was offered Freudian-type, and I fled.

  13. phoffman56
    Posted August 21, 2017 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    It surely should be mentioned that a very long time ago, much before Freud’s death IIRC, the philosopher Karl Popper indicted both Freud and Marx for having produced pseudo-scientific clap-trap. The former was of course pretending to have advanced psychological science, and the latter historical science. In both cases, the so-called science was completely lacking in falsifiability—any empirical evidence whatsoever could be shoehorned easily into being what they would claim to be support for their ‘theory’.

  14. DrBeydon
    Posted August 21, 2017 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Psychoanalysis is the study of human subjectivity.

    Sounds more like psychoanalysis is the practice of subjectivity. It’s amazing how much what Orbach says sounds like the rationalizations and temporizations of the religious.

    • Frank River
      Posted September 29, 2017 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

      “Psychoanalysis is the study of human subjectivity.”

      Not even close.

      Psychoanalysis is the study of that aspect of the relations of production which is the production/reproduction mechanism of the ideological subject.

      In other words: since Biology aptly describes the sexual/physical reproduction of two bodies, therefore it pertains to Psychoanalysis to describe the process of intellectual/ideological reproduction of a human being, that is, the way a parent reproduces his/her ideological apparatus (including both religious/ideological and objective perceptions of reality) into his/her child, so it can meet every social and political requirement and take the place that has been previously reserved for it in the fabric of society.

      Therefore, Psychoanalysis never really left the realm of Philosophy. It is, perhaps, the scientific glue that unifies the physical and socioeconomic aspects of reality. Physics (Biology) and History finally married and yet, separated by idiosyncratic circumstances.

      Freud said that Psychoanalysis is just a part of Psychology, with a critical caveat: it is its most important part, perhaps its whole foundation.

  15. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted August 21, 2017 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    I long ago concluded – as a layman – that all the stuff about interpretation of dreams and the obsession with sexual symbolism was bunk.

    What confirmed my utter contempt for Freudianism was an occasion in 1985 when NZ TV news carried an account of a special steam train from Wellington to Auckland – the first time steam had been permitted on the main line for a decade or so. And in those days (unlike now) the sight of a steam locomotive on TV was a rare and precious sight (bear in mind we didn’t have videotape). So after too few seconds of footage they cut to the studio for a well-known rail enthusiast to explain the historic significance of the run and then, so help me, they brought on some pop-psych Fraud who started pratting on about powerful piston thrusts and the symbolism of trains going into tunnels… the utter irrelevance of this derogatory timewasting garbage had an effect on my opinions that it doesn’t need a shrink to explain. 😉


  16. S Krishna
    Posted August 21, 2017 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    Freud was held in high esteem by writers (See, for example, W H Auden’s poem on Freud). The only exception was Nabokov who in book after book made fun of Freud’s views. Among Scientists the ones who saw through him first were, perhaps, Sir Karl Popper and P B Medawar. Speaking in a lighter vein, we (in particular those interested in Philosophy of Science) owe Freud some debt. If not for him, may be, Popper would not have thought of “falsifiability”.
    S Krishna

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted August 21, 2017 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

      @S Krishna – Interesting post – it got me thinking! So I have a question for you based on what I’ve read re some philosopher’s disdain for falsifiability [e.g. Sokal & Bricmont]

      Suppose Popper had never been born

      And suppose “falsifiability” had never been formulated

      Would the activity of ‘doing’ science be worse off, or would we still have detected the Higgs etc.?

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted August 21, 2017 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

        change “detected” to “predicted & detected”

      • Posted September 25, 2017 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

        The activity of “doing” science would likely be the same, but personally it would be more difficult for me to explain to student or lay audience why some pseudoscience is pseudoscience.

  17. Sastra
    Posted August 22, 2017 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    His work has had an impact of such magnitude that it’s not possible for us to think about what it means to be human, what motivates us, what we yearn for, without those very questions being Freudian.

    O gawd, this sounds just like one of those flabby attempts to answer atheism by pointing out how important and significant religion has been when it comes to everything meaningful. Yes, but does God exist? Oh, but let me answer a different question. And let me assume that you, too, assume that God is the important, significant means of filtering everything meaningful. This is apologetics.

    It’s like reading Karen Armstrong.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted August 22, 2017 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

      I remember an MA course on drama at a well-known British acting school, in which precisely that claim about the impact of his work on just about everything was made to justify taking a Freudian approach to drama. I asked what if one disagreed with Freud, what if he was wrong? And never got a satisfactory answer. Imagine the following as a justification for the study of something in the sense of taking it seriously for its own sake (and not as merely historically important in a negative way): ‘Mein Kampf & The Protocols of Zion have had an impact of such magnitude that…’

  18. chrism
    Posted August 22, 2017 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    I was amazed when I discovered that Freud is still taken seriously by large chunks of American psychiatry. In the UK we let evidence erode much of what he believed, leaving just the stump of his work on dreams, and a much smaller one left by his ideas on child development.
    Nonetheless, I still hold him in some regard for one reason – he was the first to go somewhere that was previously unexplored. Like Columbus, he misunderstood his new surroundings, but he opened the door for more objective explorers to follow.

    • Sastra
      Posted August 22, 2017 at 7:51 am | Permalink

      Freud also drew parallels between our concept of God and our experience of Parent, pointing out that the religious mindset is basically that of a small child. He wasn’t the first one to draw the connection, of course, but he popularized it.

  19. Diane G.
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 4:42 pm | Permalink


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