Sigmund’s long goodbye

Right about the time I transferred to the state school where I’d earn my B.A. (SUNY Geneseo) the college mandated a two-semester Western Civ course of all of its students. (It realized it could no longer assume its freshmen had been exposed to any W.C. in high school.)

Ah, those were the days . . . I just paged through their online academic requirements handbook and they’ve since dropped that requirement. No surprise there. Too bad. I have to say I got a good education for my dollar at that school and owe it to the people there who dared, at the time, to stand for, er, “traditional” academic principles.

Which isn’t to say that I agreed with everything they did. One of the fellows we had to read for the course was Sigmund Freud (I think what we read was Civilization and its Discontents but I’m not sure & don’t feel like pawing through my books for my copy right now); my reaction to him was “what an idiot.”

I then wrote a paper arguing that he should be dumped from the course and replaced by Jung ;-)

My prof nodded and smiled and remained unconvinced, of course. I sensed even then, through my undergrad fervor, the reason for his reticence: Freud might be an idiot but he was an influential idiot.

Still, I think ultimately even that assumption may prove false.

I predict that Freud’s influence will lessen with time to the point that he’s but a footnote. Because he really was an idiot and eventually people will be able to admit it, and with the admission of his idiocy will come a waning of his influence.

What brings this all to mind is this review, by Jerry Coyne in The Telegraph, of a collection of “dissenting essays” by Frederick Crews titled Follies of the Wise:

Through Freud’s letters and documents, Crews reveals him to be not the compassionate healer of legend, but a cold and calculating megalomaniac, determined to go down in history as the Darwin of the psyche. Not only did he not care about patients (he sometimes napped or wrote letters while they were free-associating): there is no historical evidence that he effectively cured any of them. And the propositions of psychoanalysis have proven to be either untestable or falsified. How can we disprove the idea, for example, that we have a death drive? Or that dreams always represent wish fulfilments? When faced with counter-examples, Freudianism always proves malleable enough to incorporate them as evidence for the theory. Other key elements of Freudian theory have never been corroborated. There are no scientifically convincing experiments, for example, demonstrating the repression of traumatic memories. As Crews points out, work with survivors of the Holocaust and other traumatic episodes has shown not a single case in which such memories are quashed and then recovered . . .

Realizing the scientific weaknesses of Freud, many diehards have taken the fall-back position that he was nevertheless a thinker of the first rank. Didn’t Freud give us the idea of the unconscious, they argue? Well, not really, for there was a whole history of pre-Freudian thought about people’s buried motives, including the writings of Shakespeare and Nietzsche. The “unconscious” was a commonplace of Romantic psychology and philosophy. And those who champion Freud as a philosopher must realize that his package also includes less savoury items like penis envy, the amorality of women, and our Lamarckian inheritance of “racial memory”.

Crew then goes on to argue — an argument his reviewer fully supports — that we need to close ranks against any intellectual who claims to have unearthed some great truth while simultaneously discarding empiricism. Writes Coyne, “A mind that accepts both science and religion is thus a mind in conflict.”

Call my mind a mind in conflict, then, because I have no problem whatsoever with a dual yet intermingled world, one known by the senses, the other known by the mind. And so I look askance at scientists who seek to devalue the latter as something benighted and primitive.

Not to mention the fact that scientists cannot justify such attitudes in empirical terms. Crew himself gives this away, writing “. . . most scientists probably know in their hearts that science and religion are incompatible ways of viewing the world.”

Know in their hearts? LOL

Crew then forges ahead to step in it again:

Science is nonsectarian: those who disagree on scientific issues do not blow each other up. Science encourages doubt; most religions quash it.

Excuse me? Scientists may not “blow each other up” literally, but they are all too happy to mine each other’s professional reputations and careers if they feel their assumptions are political power is being threatened. Even when the “controversy” is as mundane as why our muscles get sore when we exercise.

The fact is, we can’t separate our human-ness from our science, and our human-ness encompasses much that is too slippery for physical measurements. But it’s okay to live with a bit of ambiguity. We’ve only been tinkering seriously with empiricism for a couple hundred years. It’s too soon to assert that it will never be reconciled with the spiritual.

Or put another way: Freud was an idiot not just because he failed to ground his assertions empirically, but because he allowed his work to be perverted by his own baser impulses. That is, he failed by a spiritual measure as well as a scientific one. And there’s truth in noting that failure as well.

[tags] Sigmund Freud, empiricism, spirituality [/tags]

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3 Responses to Sigmund’s long goodbye

  1. Jim says:

    Must admit it has been years (decades, actually) since I was a student of psychology (had a social psychology major for two or three semesters… this was when JFK was in the White House), but with that caveat let me say that I think you are exactly on target with your comments.

  2. Kirsten says:


  3. Deb says:

    I agree that we should be past Freud. I think Freudian theory should be studied historically, because of its impact and influence, but not as a current psychological theory.

    Btw, I once mentioned the oedipal complex and penis envy to someone (a school principal) who had never taken a psych course and had never heard of them, and he though it was sick and bizarre. Whereas I sat there as an undergraduate, probably nodding my head and taking notes when I heard about them! LOL!

    I also very much agree with you that we can have both science and religion. I hate hearing about the Bushies ignoring good science, and I hate hearing about scientists saying that there is nothing true that can’t be measured.

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