Cultural Commentary

The impact of culture, tradition and society on psyche.

Freud's Friends and Enemies One Hundred Years Later, Part 2

Freud's Enemies List


Can You Find Freud in This Photo?

Preamble: In 1909 Sigmund Freud visited the United States for the first and only time. He did so at the invitation of G. Stanley Hall, the president of Clark University, in connection with the 20th anniversary celebration of the founding of America's original graduate student only research institution. Speaking in German to a who's who of psychologists and other social scientists (many of whom would have been multilingual in those days) Freud delivered a series of now famous lectures on psychoanalysis. One hundred years later, on October 3, 2009, Clark University commemorated what is arguably the most significant event in its history with a series of Freud centennial keynote addresses, answering the general question "Does the Mind Still Matter?" My own lecture, originally titled "Cleansing of the Soul: Freud's Friends and Enemies One Hundred Years Later" will appear in Psychology Today in three parts - a blog trilogy. Part 1 was published on February 2, 2010. Part 2 appears below. Here I recapitulate and update Freud's enemies list as it was first presented in my New York Times Op-Ed essay titled "It Time to Reinvent Freud" (12/15/95).

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Freud's Friends and Enemies One Hundred Years Later, Part 1 ended this way, with foreboding. "These days questions such as ‘Is there a place for psychoanalysis in our up-to-date, fast paced, bio-medically enlightened cost conscious consumer society?' get asked with increasing frequency, thereby making psychoanalysts feel defensive and confirming the validity of their fear that the answer may be ‘No.'" Part 2 of this blog trilogy begins by noting that because their fear is reality-based, from a therapeutic point of view there is little point in trying to deny it. For it is true that psychoanalysis in general (as theory and method) and Sigmund Freud in particular (as theorist and healer) have numerous and various types of intellectual enemies who would be quite pleased to bury Freud's legacy. They might even harbor some doubts about the wisdom of gathering together researchers from several disciplines to commemorate or celebrate Freud's lectures at Clark University in Worchester, Massachusetts in 1909. Here is a short list of some of Freud's enemies. I won't name names, only schools of thought.

Sociobiologists (as well as their kindred spirits, the evolutionary psychologists) don't like Freud because they think that interpersonal familiarity breeds contempt, not attraction. The sociobiologists argue that Freud can't be right that family members who grow up together have a sexual interest in one another. The sociobiologists believe that the "Oedipus Complex" is a fanciful literary invention and that there is nothing psychologically dynamic, defensive or sexy about the so-called incest taboo. Indeed, they don't actually think of the incest "taboo" as a taboo, but merely as an observed fact of sexual indifference between siblings who are reared together and between parents and children who interact with each other with any frequency, for example, by living in the same household. The sociobiologists called this the (sexless, anti-erotic) law of propinquity.

Moving down the enemies list, cognitive neuroscientists don't like Freud because they think the unconscious mind has no intentionality and is just a rapidly firing network of widely distributed neurons, with no free will or mind of its own. Many cognitive neuroscientists, at least those who are most consistently committed to a physical science or materialist point of view, believe that the intuitive experience of self determination and even consciousness itself are merely epiphenomena with no causal roles in regulating behavior.

Freud has still other enemies. Behavioral geneticists don't like Freud because they really do think biology is destiny and that early childhood experience has very little to do with how things turn out in your later life. Even some of those who still believe strongly in early ontogenetic environmental influences on character development have had doubts about some major aspects of Freud's general theory of psychosexual development. For example, long ago (that means in the 1950s) John Whiting's and Irvin Child's famous comparative anthropological assessment of Freud's psycho-sexual libidinous stage theory (the theory of oral, anal and genital fixations due to child training practices) provided only equivocal support at best for the stage theory and its claims about the effects of child care customs (for example, early versus late weaning from the breast) on personality development. For the most part these days (there are, of course, some incorrigible orthodox Freudians around) psycho-sexual stage theories of character development have been abandoned by research oriented American child psychologists.

Freud has had his problems even in France. The French intellectuals who have had the greatest influence on American academic thought in recent decades come in two kinds, and neither has had all that much sympathy for Freud. Or else they have reworked Freud's theories to the point where they are unrecognizable (for example, in the writings of Jacques Lacan).

The first type, the skeptical postmodernists or so-called poststructuralists, don't like Freud because they believe that interpretation is merely free association or a form of subjective reader responsiveness to the inherently ambiguous symbols in a text (such as the manifest content of a dream). Freud himself viewed his task of interpretation as one of discovery, not imaginative projection or fanciful invention. In his work on dream interpretation he searched for rules of translation that would enable him to go back and forth between the dream as recalled (the so-called manifest content of the dream) and what he hypothesized were the real dream thoughts (the so-called latent content of the dream). He viewed these texts as two versions of the same subject matter rendered in two different languages. He wrote: "...the dream content seems like a transcript of the dream thought into another mode of expression, whose character and syntactic laws it is our business to discover by comparing the original and the translation." The post-structuralists don't like Freud because they think he was too much of a semantic realist and an essentialist when he argued that by studying free associations one could actually uncover laws and determine the true or objective meanings of a "text."

Where there are post-structuralists there must also be "structuralists". That term identifies the second type of influential French intellectual, for example, the famous structural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss with his highly abstract, formalistic (and almost mathematical) approach to the interpretation of the meaning of cultural myths, stories and legends. Levi-Strauss's structural method is notorious (famous and infamous) for taking anything that is potentially passionate, lustful, aggressive, anxiety-ridden or ambivalence-laden and recasting it as a form of cool and cerebral logical or classificatory thought.

Nowhere is this tendency of the French structuralists to move from the hot to the cold, from content to form, from the guts full to the cerebral more evident than in a published 1972 lecture by Levi-Strauss delivered to alumnae of Barnard College, a college affiliated with Columbia University in New York City. Levi-Strauss begins his lecture by informing his audience of highly educated women that Franz Boas - the founding father of American anthropology - loved to lecture to classes of debutantes at Barnard (Boas began his American academic career by creating the first anthropology department in the country at Clark University in the 1890s. Boas is front row left in the famous group photograph of Freud from the 1909 Clark conference. But he later moved to Columbia University where his intellectual progeny included Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead). In any case Levi-Strauss informs the Barnard alums that Boas loved to lecture to classes of debutantes at Barnard. He then launches into a structural analysis of various versions of a Northwest coast American Indian story about an ogress who kidnaps little boys and girls. The ogress, it seems, likes to eat clams, all except the siphons - defined by Levi-Strauss as ''those soft little trunks by means of which mollusks take in and expel water, and which are conspicuous in some species of clams.'' (Notably, the unrepressed and irrepressible teenagers who went clamming in the region of the USA where I grew up routinely referred to that obviously phallic part of calm anatomy - those "soft little trunks" - as "dicks"). A supernatural helper tells the child how to escape from the ogress. Collect the discarded siphons, place them on the tips of your fingers and wave them at the ogress, ''who will become so frightened that she will fall backward into an abyss and be killed.'' This is done and the wealth of the ogress goes to the child's father, who shares it with others.

The Northwest Coast Indians, whose story that is, tell visiting anthropologists that the story is about the origins of their cultural practice of ceremonial gift-giving. But Levi-Strauss, who, not unlike Freud, likes very much to figure out what a story or myth is 'really' about, is on a search for hidden or unconscious meanings. ''Why,'' he asks, ''should a powerful ogress be frightened by something as harmless and insignificant as clam siphons?''

Why indeed? It is noteworthy that Levi-Strauss does not ask why the boy does not keep the wealth of the ogress for himself but rather surrenders it to his father. One almost expects Freud (and Oedipus) to burst through the walls of the lecture hall. But no, Levi-Strauss moves on to a related story, a young boy who enjoys his captivity with the ogress and refuses to return to his father. When he reluctantly agrees to flee, he puts mountain goat horns on his fingers to frighten his captor. In another version it's the beards of the clam, described as tufts of silky filament, which are used to make sheaths for the fingers.

So what are the symbols in the story - those clam siphons that get nipped off and discarded, the goat horns, the beards, the tufts of silky filament - really about? Could it have something to do with ambivalence over sex identity, genital associations, dependence and independence, oedipal rivalry, castration, and so on? No, what the story is really about, according to Levi- Strauss, is the abstract classificatory contrast between water and land, marine and terrestrial nature, means and ends. Freud's dynamic, conflict-ridden and passion-driven logic of interpretation does not seem to compute in this French structural calculus. So both the French structuralists and the French post-structuralists have little real sympathy for Freud.

Then there are the feminists, who of course come in many stripes. Stripes aside, many feminists don't like Freud because they think he discounted reports of sexual abuse, disparaged the female body with his notion of penis envy, and collaborated with his buddies against his female clients. They think Freud was an old fashioned Victorian patriarch, perhaps even a sexist.

Even academic psychologists and philosophers of science don't like Freud. The academic psychologists think that the study of the mind has nothing to do with sex, food, religion, literature, mythology or the history of civilizations. As my friend the psychologist Paul Rozin has been fond of pointing out for years, ideas, attitudes, feelings and behaviors concerning sex, food and religion (issues that are hardly minor concerns for most human beings) are topics that hardly appear at all as entries in psychology textbooks. Freud long ago moved outside the main stream of academic psychology by simply making all the topics I just mentioned the core of his and our mental curriculum. Academic psychology seems to have forgotten that one of the first things God told Moses was what to eat and what not to eat and how to prepare food - Leviticus is not an afterthought in the Hebrew Bible.

But it gets worse. These days the philosophers of science generally come in two kinds with regard to Freud: there are those philosophers who think Freud's tenets are not testable and hence are unworthy of scientific consideration, and then there are those philosophers who think his tenets are testable and have been shown to be false. So the rap on Freud in all these intellectual and academic quarters is not very good, to say the least.

Moreover, despite the once great popularity of Dr. Benjamin Spock (who did combine pediatric medicine with psychoanalytic insights) the word is now out in the medical world. It takes too long to "know thyself." Increments of personal insight are hard to measure or reimburse. Moreover, medical interns tend to get nervous when they actually have to speak to their patients. Medical interns know all too little about the real workings of the nervous system and even less about functional illnesses (the 70% or so of headaches or majority of chest pains for which neurologists or cardiologists can find no structural problem). As trained physicians they are not particularly sophisticated when it comes to psychosomatic effects or the pains of consciousness (existential sufferings as they are sometimes called) that arise from a (metaphorically speaking but very real) broken heart or from those classical human fears that the ancient Roman poet Lucretius identified as the main sources of the most distinctively human varieties of unhappiness; namely, the fear of the gods and the fear of death.

The first type of fear (of the gods) might be thought of as including guilt, shame and humiliation and the anticipated consequences of transgressions, pollutions and sins of all sorts. The second type of fear (of death) (a type of fear that is only possible for a person capable of foresight and dread in the face of anticipations over some envisioned future state of affairs) might also be thought to include losses, rejections, and failures of attachment of many kinds. What those medical interns do know how to do is hand out Prozac, and they usually do it with as few words as possible - the ministering of potions rather than ‘talking cures.".

So, Freud was probably right to worry, as he did in his writing on "The Question of Lay Analysis" that the marriage of psychoanalysis to medicine in the United States would one day end in disaster. It pretty much has ended that way. (Part 3 of this trilogy - a Freud friendly reflection on the fate and cleansing of souls and on varieties of explanations of illness - will appear in the next "Cultural Commentary" blog).

Who's Who in the group photograph?


Richard Shweder is a cultural anthropologist and the Harold Higgins Swift Distinguished Service Professor of Human Development at the University of Chicago.



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