In a recent column, “Why We’re Still Fighting Over Freud,” I commented on a debate at NYU about the scientific status of psychoanalysis, which Freud invented more than 100 years ago. I reiterated my why-Freud-isn’t-dead argument: yes, psychoanalysis is profoundly flawed, but so are all other paradigms for explaining and treating the mind, from behaviorism to psychopharmacology. Afterwards I got an email from Freud’s sharpest critic, literary scholar Frederick Crews, professor emeritus at the University of California Berkeley. Crews has been eviscerating Freud with flair for decades, most recently in Freud: The Making of an Illusion(Metropolitan, 2017; Picador, 2018). I profiled Crews in my 1999 book The Undiscovered Mind, in a chapter titled “Why Freud Isn’t Dead.” I said his “superficially reserved, even shy manner concealed a ferocious resolve and self-assurance.” Below is Crews’s response to my Freud column. – John Horgan

John Horgan and I can trace our acquaintance to April 1998, when we met in New Haven on the eve of a Yale University conference, “Whose Freud? The Place of Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture.” In that instance, as it happens, the question “whose Freud?” had been settled in advance: Freud belonged exclusively to his admirers. Among twenty-four invited speakers, all of whom were known for their views about depth psychology, I was the only doubter of psychoanalytic doctrine.

I remember one portion of the two-day event very well. My brief talk, which can be read in a subsequent book with the same title (Yale University Press, 2000), was greeted by anomalous gales of laughter bursting out in mid-sentence. It was from John Horgan’s write-up of the proceedings that I learned the reason. A fellow panelist on the stage, the psychoanalyst and eminent Cornell professor Robert Michels, had provoked the audience’s hilarity by making funny faces during my presentation.

I am grateful to John for that bit of enlightenment. From the first, however—even before the Yale meetings began—he and I found ourselves somewhat at odds over Freud’s claims about the mind. For me, a scientifically chastened ex-Freudian, psychoanalytic theory amounted to a pseudoscience. (More about that below.) John, in contrast, already held the position he recently summarized on this blog. 

On that occasion John was describing still another Freud debate, this one scrupulously balanced between two defenders and two skeptics. John was reluctant to dispute even the most damaging charges of the naysayers: that Freud misstated his therapeutic results, faked his alleged discoveries, and put forward hypotheses that were so vague and confused as to be operationally meaningless. Nevertheless, he insisted that we cannot yet dispense with Freud.

Two considerations have prompted John to hold steadfastly to that opinion from the 1990s until now. First, he has noted that an assortment of worthy figures, including some neuroscientists as well as grateful patients, remain loyal to the founder of psychoanalysis. This point, however, smacks of circularity. We need to inquire whether those diehard Freudians have expressed independently sound justifications for their loyalty. On that score, the examples John recently provided are not reassuring. 

A formerly psychotic legal scholar, John relates, “overcame schizophrenia with the help of psychoanalysis and medications”—leaving us uncertain about the contribution of the former and equally unsure whether that contribution was enabled by validated Freudian postulates. Again, John passes along one debater’s citation of the Nobelist Eric Kandel’s warmth toward Freud. But Kandel’s Freudian affinity was formed in his prescientific Viennese youth, and his brilliant work on the molecular basis of memory owed nothing to psychoanalysis. Yet again, John is impressed by the brain researcher Mark Solms’s likening of Freud to Newton and Darwin. Does John know that Solms is a practicing psychoanalyst who, in contravention of sound empirical procedure, scours neurological data for signs of convergence with the Freudian ideas he already accepts? Solms’s would-be discipline of “neuropsychoanalysis” rests entirely on that epistemic quicksand.

John’s other motive for shielding Freud is more substantive and more widely shared, but it is no less illogical. Like more avid Freudians than himself—the philosopher Jonathan Lear especially comes to mind—John believes that psychoanalytic lore is the sole remaining recourse for those of us who hold out against a mechanistic and pharmacological impoverishment of mental life. “Freud lives on,” we read, “because science hasn’t produced a mind-body paradigm potent enough to knock him off once and for all.”

The unstated premise here is that only Freud offers a properly holistic overview of the psyche. If so, that would be surprising. Hundreds of extant psychotherapies are accompanied by pretensions to plumb the psychological depths. Why single out Freud, who, despite his Romantic poetizing about the seething cauldron of the unconscious, was himself a neurological determinist and reductionist? In the eyes of the lay public, for whatever that is worth, it is the mystical, upbeat Jung and not Freud who cornered the psychological market on soulfulness.

John may want to insist, with Lear, that the Freudian psychical model is uniquely intricate and nuanced. Complexity, however, is of zero value if, as in Freud’s case, it is generated merely by methodological rote. Freud’s standard bag of tricks, not his observations, prompted him to invert apparent motives, decree that every mental event is a “compromise formation” with “overdetermined” causes, and perceive genital symbolism, incest wishes, and latent homosexuality wherever he turned. The only knowledge that can be extracted from such trademark practices is knowledge about Freud. He granted himself an absolute license to “Freudianize” without concern for more plausible explanations, and he routinely misattributed his personal obsessions to others.

Is it true, in any case, that we must cling to nebulous and arbitrary psychological propositions until the mind-body problem has been definitively resolved? We may feel strongly, as John does, that there are features of the psyche beyond those that have thus far survived rigorous testing. But both science and social justice encourage us to ensure, insofar as possible, that baseless propositions not be allowed to yield further inferences. Within living memory, psychologists, psychiatrists, educators, childrearing authorities, and judges and juries derived ill-advised conclusions from psychoanalytic folklore that was later found to be sheer prejudice. In favoring a special indulgence for Freud, John seems almost to welcome a reversion to those times.

If I were a science journalist myself, I would still want to draw lessons from Freud, not about the unconscious but about the classic ingredients of a pseudoscience. Freud, we need to realize, created the most ingenious and thoroughgoing pseudoscience ever devised. To grasp its slippery rationale is to be forearmed against similar enterprises that may happen along.

As the late philosopher Frank Cioffi convincingly maintained, a pseudoscience can be recognized not by its false claims but by the behavior of its proponents when one of their beliefs is disconfirmed or shown to be vacuous. Then the defenders will either dispute the refutation, cite imaginary proofs, slander the critic, co-opt the criticism by attaching ad hoc provisos to their doctrine, or pretend that their theory meant something else altogether. 

Freud prolifically employed all five tactics, with the result that, even within his lifetime, psychoanalytic discourse became a vast jumble of contradictions, rhetorical dodges, and escape clauses. But Freud went farther still, first by invoking uniquely self-confirming rules of interpretation and then by nullifying all objections in advance of hearing them. He included, within his theory itself, a “clinical diagnosis” of the pathological urge to “resist” psychoanalytic truth. Neither astrology nor Mesmerism nor phrenology ever approached this apogee of combined delusion and deception.

Partisans of psychoanalysis are fond of saying that they have left Freud largely behind by now. Of course they have; such concepts as penis envy, the vaginal orgasm, innate female masochism, and the death instinct have outworn their social welcome. But the question to ask—and I hope John Horgan will finally take an interest in it—is whether the analysts have come to grips with their master’s fatal willfulness of method. Have they forsworn the advancing of hypotheses by means of self-serving anecdotes? Do they subject those hypotheses to impartial evidential review, weighing alternatives from nonpsychoanalytic sources? Do their training institutes now teach scientific method as opposed to the local directors’ gospel? And are they prepared to contemplate the likelihood that the whole Freudian edifice was a house of cards? If not, we needn’t lend further credence to any of their claims. -- Frederick Crews

Further Reading:

Freud: The Making of an Illusion, by Frederick Crews

Mind-Body Problems (free online editionKindle e-book and paperback)

Why We're Still Fighting over Freud

Why Freud Still Isn't Dead

Why B.F. Skinner, Like Freud, Isn’t Dead

Why Buddha Isn't Dead

Meta-Post: Posts on the Mind-Body Problem

Meta-Post: Posts on Mental Illness