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Freud Is On Mine

July 14, 2012

This week an article about perceptions of the discipline of  psychology was used to bash Sigmund Freud repeatedly, over his long-deceased head. It seems to be a common pastime these days.

In a rather alarming opening, the author who teaches A level psychology, lumps the great 20th century theorist in with ‘pop psychology and self-help manuals’ :

‘I already know that I’ll spend the first week or so dispelling the many myths that surround my discipline and, as a result, at least a few of my new students will realise that psychology isn’t really what they thought it was and will decide to go and study something else.

Ask many people to name a famous psychologist and they will invariably say Sigmund Freud. This perhaps exemplifies some of the main problems with psychology today, in that the public has been raised on a sugary diet of pop psychology and self-help manuals.’

This rejection of and even demonisation of Freud has been going on since well, since he was alive and first developing the theory and practice of psychoanalysis in the early 20th century! But now it seems completely accepted that the Austrian writer and doctor was some kind of ‘crank’. I attribute this situation to the triumph of positivism, the philosophy of knowledge that says that ‘rationality’ and  ’empirical evidence’ is everything and nothing can be left to the imagination. As a writer myself, including of fiction, I am not happy with this narrow minded state of affairs!

Although this article is supposedly one which ‘debunks myths’ about psychology it actually reinforces some along the way. One is based on a No True Scotsman type position, suggesting that there are ‘authentic’ psychologists and then there are pretenders:

‘While the BPS has the power to confer chartered status on its members, the public and the media rarely recognise the difference between a psychologist and a Chartered Psychologist (or a psychologist, psychotherapist or counsellor for that matter).

This is perhaps one of the reasons why people conjure up an image of Sigmund Freud when they think of psychology – and why our students get so confused.’

So using this strict definition of what a psychologist is or isn’t, Freud is struck off from the profession. This is justified by emphasising the ‘biological’ elements in psychology:

‘A-level psychology contains more biology than many may assume with students looking at neurotransmitters and hormones and the way in which they influence conditions from stress and sleep to schizophrenia and depression.’

But even using a biological, medical model of psychology, the rejection of Freud’s contribution to the subject is not valid. He had a respected career as a scientist and a physician, before developing his school of psychoanalysis. So Freud’s  ‘science’ credentials are much stronger than people allow for.

But, like many others, the author of this piece is determined to slam Siggy. He writes:

‘So what about Freud? First of all many in the profession would dispute and even reject outright his psychological credentials – he was a psychoanalyst (which isn’t the same as a psychologist).

Second, he wasn’t really a scientist because he didn’t gather and analyse evidence in an objective or scientific manner (most of his theories were based on a small sample of middle-class Austrian women).

Finally, if you choose to study psychology you may perhaps only catch a glimpse of Freud – and even then perhaps only in order to compare his unscientific methods to those of the more evidence based cognitive and biological ones.

Now, think of a famous psychologist? With Freud out of the way, it’s a more difficult question.’

But is Freud actually ‘out of the way’? If he were, why would psychology teachers still be arguing for him to be discredited in 2012, over a century after he began his work in the field? Possibly because his work has had a lasting impact, not only on academics and practitioners, but also on the wider, popular, what a psychoanalyst  might call the ‘collective consciousness’.

In the two days following this article, Freud was mentioned in the Guardian three times, in very diverse contexts. The first was in a piece giving accounts of workers in the financial sector, the second in an article celebrating the life and work of artist Gustav Klimt, and the third in a review of a a book about vegetables.

So maybe Freud is not quite dead and buried yet!

One of my concerns about this article is not limited to what it says about academic teaching of the subject of psychology. I think the Guardian is happy for Freud to be dissed because the Guardian itself, especially its feminist columnists, display attitudes that can be uncovered and criticised using a ‘Freudian’ approach. Journos such as  Suzanne Moore and Julie Bindel seem to want to cast men as powerful, and ultimately as bad. This has ‘oedipal’ parallels, with feminist concepts of ‘patriarchy’ echoing Freud’s ideas about the symbolic ‘Law of the Father’ and the child’s desire to destroy its parent(s). If feminism is actually in part a psychological response, maybe it should not be given such political or moral status.

Also at a very basic but often unacknowledged level, Freud offered love and compassion to men. Something that feminism is not very amenable to! He also developed a theory that everyone has the potential for bisexual response. This rather goes against the ‘gay’ identity politics that the Guardian espouses.

The ‘born this way’ model of innate, fixed sexual orientation, that fits so well with sexual ‘identity politics’  is gaining ground in our culture as a whole. In a recent book by gay academic Mark Mccormack, for example, I found a scant, inaccurate and to be honest quite insulting ‘critique’ of Freud’s more socially situated models of sexuality. Mccormack, who advocates the very worrying ‘sex science’ of Simon Le Vay and Michael J Bailey, also managed to make some digs at Oscar Wilde while he was there:

‘Wilde became a symbol of effeminacy at the time, linking same-sex desire and effeminacy in cultural understandings of gender and sexuality – an association that found intellectual support in Freud’s (1905) theory of childhood sexuality.

Freud’s theorizing started from the position that sexual orientation was not innate but structured by one’s upbringing. Living in Vienna, Freud witnessed this mass expansion of cities, and he simultaneously noticed an increase in sex between men. However, Freud misattributed this to the absence of men from child-rearing, leading to overly feminized boys (Anderson 2009)…

Irrespective of the veracity off his theories, Freud’s notions of sexuality and gender provided academic respectability to the cultural understanding  that femininity in men was indicative of homosexuality. Although Freudian theories of homosexuality are no longer directly used in gender scholarship, his pioneering work left a lasting imprint on gender scholarship throughout the twentieth century, and his theories still hold traction in some parts of the media today. For example, fears about the feminization of education are ultimately rooted in Freudian concerns about boys not having proper male role models (see Lingard, Martino, and Mills 2008).’

Apart from the total disregard for Freud’s work on not only bisexuality, but also the oedipal complex, the importance of the subconscious, transference, sadomasochism and ‘everyday’ anxiety and neuroses, Mccormack seems determined to associate the Austrian writer with ‘prejudiced’ perceptions of gay men as ‘screaming queens’. As gay culture and politics becomes more and more ‘assimilationist’ and ‘establishment’ it is convenient to find ways to dismiss those who have stood out from the crowd, and who have in some ways ‘problematised’ homosexuality. Also missing from Mccormack’s account is how Freud actually problematised ALL sexuality!

I accept that in some ways Sigmund Freud was a man ‘of his time’. His work is not always a perfect fit for the 21st century. But to throw him in the trashcan, in favour of ‘progress’ and ‘science’ and ‘biologically produced sexual orientation’ and ‘gay rights’ is a foolish, and I think nasty thing to do.

You can have your empirical data analysis and penile plesmographs on your side. But you lose.  Freud is on mine.

Top picture of Freud by Warhol:

15 Comments leave one →
  1. July 14, 2012 10:57 am

    Sorry QRG,but in my experience the only people who continue to attribute any kind of value to Freud have studied little or no psychology, know literally nothing about the subject, and have invariably studied some branch of cultural studies instead.

    I had this bizarre conversation with a woman at a party quite recently who was doing a PhD in Film Studies. So I presume she’d already got a first in her degree, or close to it. When she was explaining to me her thesis, she said “when most people think about how we understand stuff, it’s normally using principles of psychoanalysis, but there’s this really interesting new theory called cognitivism I’d like to look at…”

    I nearly choked on my cheap lager. New theory? What is this, fucking 1938?

    There is nothing in the Guardian article I disagree with, my only complaint would be that it doesn’t even begin to address just how damaging the Freud legacy has been to both psychology and psychiatry, doesn’t begin to explain just how monumentally wrong he turned out to be about just about everything. And I think I disagree with literally every word of your blog above, for way, way, way too many reasons to explain.

    I have no problem if literary theorists or film studies academics or whoever wish to read something in the light of Freud. If it helps them feel like they understand their texts better, then good luck to them. But they can do the same thing with the Brothers Grimm. It doesn’t make the fairy tales any more true.

    Your rationalist friend,


  2. July 14, 2012 10:59 am

    I have studied social psychology at phd level. applied to ‘real life’ not film studies. My phd supervisor was a social psychologist, just as Petra Boynton is.

  3. July 14, 2012 12:08 pm

    Hi QRG, I’d actually come back here to apologise for the swipe at cultural studies, which ended up more like a swipe at you than it should have.

    What I meant and what I should have said is that Freud may still be considered of value to cultural theorists or even gender theorists, but as far as theoretical psychology is concerned he is absolutely a dead duck.

    Not only can every observation he made be explained more credibly using other theoretical models, but those theoretical models – unlike his – can be tested, found wanting, developed and improved upon, all of which are crucial elements to any scientific (or social scientific) endeavour.

    That’s why the psychology teacher who wrote the article is quite right to say that the public perception of psychology is damaged immensely by the false idea that Freud is the so-called ‘Father of modern psychology.” He’s not. He’s the embarrassing great uncle.

    • July 14, 2012 12:14 pm

      ok so which theorists do you admire now?

      and if he is a ‘dead duck’ why was he referred to in three separate articles in the Graun, AFTER an article saying he is a ‘dead duck’?

      and if he is a dead duck why do we need articles in the Guardian repeating that fact? surely if teachers are not teaching Freud anymore isn’t that enough to keep him killed off?

      • July 14, 2012 9:40 pm

        Sorry for the delay QRG, been offline all day.

        ok so which theorists do you admire now?

        One of the things I like about psychology is that it doesn’t really lend itself to gurus and overarching theories of everything. So there are no psychologists who are right about everything, in my experience. What is much more typical is that you will get classic papers, classic experiments, flashes of brilliant insight, often from psychologists who will do nothing else in their careers. And even the moments of brilliance are often later found inadequate in some ways by subsequent study. That’s the beauty of it,

        But in terms of who have been most influential on my own thinking, in no particular order, Bowlby on emotional development is probably the single biggest one for me. Attachment theory still explains a larger proportion of

        Others include the usual suspects: Chomsky on language development and (to an extent) evolutionary factors; Aaron Beck on clinical intervention; Richard Gregory on perception; Zimbardo on social processes… still waiting for some neuroscientist to really seduce me, hasn’t happened yet. If there’s a proper Eureka moment on the way in psychology, it will certainly come from the neuroscientists, but Pinker, Baron-Cohen etc don’t really do it for me. I’m more with Cordelia Fine on the problems with that research.

        “and if he is a ‘dead duck’ why was he referred to in three separate articles in the Graun, AFTER an article saying he is a ‘dead duck’? and if he is a dead duck why do we need articles in the Guardian repeating that fact? surely if teachers are not teaching Freud anymore isn’t that enough to keep him killed off?”

        That’s a good question. Part of it is that people (yourself included) still keep bringing him up. His ideas are constantly referenced by non-psychologists, including fiction writers and journalists. He’s a very important figure in the history of Western thought, and so he’s become a bit of a cultural archetype, which would amuse his pal Carl no end, I’m sure.

    • July 14, 2012 12:15 pm

      and p.s. that is my point about ‘positivism’. I don’t rate experiments and ‘testing’ as much as you or most people.

      On Sat, Jul 14, 2012 at 1:14 PM, Elly wrote:

      > ok so which theorists do you admire now? > > and if he is a ‘dead duck’ why was he referred to in three separate > articles in the Graun, AFTER an article saying he is a ‘dead duck’? > > and if he is a dead duck why do we need articles in the Guardian repeating > that fact? surely if teachers are not teaching Freud anymore isn’t that > enough to keep him killed off? > > >

  4. July 14, 2012 2:22 pm

    “I attribute this situation to the triumph of positivism, the philosophy of knowledge that says that ‘rationality’ and ’empirical evidence’ is everything and nothing can be left to the imagination. As a writer myself, including of fiction, I am not happy with this narrow minded state of affairs!”

    It’s not a matter of saying that empirical evidence is ‘everything’. But the scientific process of testing theories is the best source of knowledge about the world that we have. STEM (hard) science verifiably describes things, and even makes a lot of correct predictions. Religion, fiction, journalists, and ,notably, economists can’t compete with this. It’s this that sets good science apart from other approaches.

    At the same time, some of the best statistical-based work I’ve seen has been in the medical sciences, and it still doesn’t come up with very concrete results. Doctors often seem to be guessing as to why some medicines work better than others. This is because when scientists don’t understand extremely complicated systems, they often attempt to find broad trends using stats. The brain is one of those over-complex systems – it’s a nightmare trying to study how its organised. So stats get used a lot – but they’re not the be all and end all.

    Imagination can give us new scientific models with it, we can create works of art that inspire thoughts inside other peoples’ heads with it, etc. If you want to call Freud’s work great imaginative writing (apparently his written German is quite something) then fine. And the effect on thought/literature/advertising etc is unarguable. But we shouldn’t talk as though it’s science in either of the senses described above – but as speculation.

    • July 15, 2012 8:32 am

      Thanks sarah jayne! I will leave a comment on your blog.

      I think in terms of our understanding of gender/sexuality identities I could not do without Freud’s insights. I don’t know if there is anyone else whose work you admire in that area who ISNT influenced by Freud?

  5. July 14, 2012 8:22 pm

    I have yet to really understand why Freud’s ideas have been criticised and rejected by ‘scientists’. If he has indeed proposed an exhaustive theory, shouldn’t we try to break it down into testable hypothesis (positivism) and see which one can be supported and and which can be falsified? His ideas on the unconscious may sound ridiculous, but then again, modern cognitive psychology has to some extent vindicated this. Are we rejecting him because we can’t test his ideas? If that’s the case, is that because modern psychology or science is still incapable of testing such ideas, just like how people subscribe to the geocentrism for so many centuries because they simply did not have that much faith and most importantly technology to discover the facts?

    Sadly, is the fact that many who call themselves ‘real scientists or psychologists’ are throwing the entire theory into the bin! Is there a need for that? Many of Freud’s fundamental assumptions are in fact what modern psychology is based on and are ideas that we have just begun to appreciate. For instance, he was right in saying that early interactions are crucial for later development; he also believed that personality is the result of the expression and inhibition of instincts, and the context in which all these occur; and as for the Id and the pleasure principle, it may be contentious, but if we think carefully, contemporary psychology actually proposes the same ideas, but only in a different or a more euphemistic way (we strive towards nice things and away from nasty things).

    Well, I do agree that many of his ideas are just blatantly wrong, but that doesn’t mean that EVERYTHING has to be rejected.

    • July 14, 2012 11:37 pm

      Thanks Hause.

      I strongly agree, that a lot of what we take for granted in psychology is actually derived from Freud’s concepts.

      Without the ‘subconscious’ I dont think we would have contemporary psychology as we have come to know it, penile plesmographs and all.

  6. July 18, 2012 7:29 pm

    But his ”theories” aren’t testable – even in principle. His theories include concepts like ”denial” and ”reaction formation” which not only explain away any errors in prediction the analyst makes but can then be twisted to ”prove” the theory is correct.

    And it’s not harmless quackery: in France they still ”treat” children with Aspergers by asking their mother’s about the dreams they had during pregnancy.

    ”Well, I do agree that many of his ideas are just blatantly wrong, but that doesn’t mean that EVERYTHING has to be rejected.”

    Freud wrote much which was original and much that was correct. Unfortunately nothing that he wrote was both original and correct.

    Freud didn’t discover unconscious processes, and what we now know about unconscious processes bears little in common with the steam-age metaphors Freud gave us.

    Psychoanalysis is cargo-cult science. It is a series of knob-gags extended into an epistemology. It has the same relationship to psychology that astrology has to astronomy


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