Freud's Friends and Enemies One Hundred Years Later, Part 1

Did Freud Go Too Far? How Far Would You Go?

Posted Feb 02, 2010

Can You Find Freud in This Photo?

Preamble: In 1909 Sigmund Freud visited the United States for the first and only time. He journeyed to Worchester, Massachusetts 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 academic 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 one of the most significant events 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 over the next few days as a "Cultural Commentary" blog trilogy. Part 1 of the trilogy begins below.

The notoriously droll and quick witted Sydney Morgenbesser, the beloved philosopher of the social sciences at Columbia University, posed the following final exam question to his students: "It is often said that Marx and Freud went too far. How far would you go?"

The question is a right-minded and respectful one to ask at this centennial occasion honoring Sigmund Freud. How far would you go? Would you argue that dreams have hidden meanings that are always wish-fulfillments in disguise? Or that works of art and literature and other high cultural creations are sublimations of sexual and aggressive impulses? Do you believe there are NO accidental events, like slips of the tongue; or that the life of the mind is governed by a principle of purposeful but largely unconscious self-determination? Would you argue that the core features of religion are merely illusions or projected figments of the human imagination, which can and should be explained away or reduced to the functions they serve in our psychic life, rather than taken seriously as illuminating representations of the way things really are?

And recall it was Freud who took the still very popular view of childhood as a stage of innocence (as a period of life uncorrupted by selfishness, status seeking, and acquisitiveness) and re-introduced a perspective on the nature of children that was essentially the secular equivalent of the theological doctrine of original sin; a viewpoint he advanced by means of his claim that even very young children are motivated by libidinous desires, homicidal fantasies and competitive rivalries of the sort that would have no place in the garden of Eden. So how far would you go?

"Ladies and Gentlemen: It is a new and somewhat embarrassing experiment for me to appear as lecturer before students of the New World. I assume that I owe this honor to the association of my name with the theme of psychoanalysis and consequently it is of psychoanalysis that I shall aim to speak. I shall attempt to give you in very brief form an historical survey of the origin and further development of this new method of research and cure. Granted that it is a merit to have created psychoanalysis, it is not my merit. I was a student, busy with the passing of my last examinations, when another physician of Vienna, Dr. Joseph Breuer, made the first application of this method to the case of an hysterical girl (1880-1882)."

It was with those words that Sigmund Freud began his 1909 lecture commemorating the 20th anniversary of the opening of Clark University. There is a famous picture of those who participated in that historic celebration - a black and white photo of four rows of graying, balding and bearded (and now legendary) men standing in earnest postures on the steps in front of a Clark University building (men such as William James, G. Stanley Hall, Franz Boas, Carl Jung, E.B. Titchener, Adolf Meyer, Sandor Ferenczi and many others) almost all of whom look very much like Sigmund Freud. Except Freud himself, who is rather hard to identify, and who looks surprisingly robust, muscular, youthful and pleasingly unfamiliar at age 53; Freud bears almost no resemblance in that photo to the sculptured, avuncular, larger than life, but more recognizable image so prominently on heroic display in the middle of the Clark University campus.

In his opening remarks that day, one hundred years ago, Freud recounted Dr. Joseph Breuer's therapeutic experiments using hypnosis with a very articulate female patient who was suffering from hysteria; and who, by herself, invented a label for posterity for the methods of psychoanalysis, which she called "the talking cure" and which she jokingly and poetically designated as mental "chimney sweeping." Freud himself referred to psychoanalysis in his lecture as a "cleansing of the soul." He once wrote: "However philosophy may bridge the gap between physical and mental, it still exists for practical purposes, and our practice on each side of it must differ accordingly." He reached for the "talking cure" rather than for potions to assuage the human soul.

And despite all the attention in recent decades to Freud's early interests in the brain sciences, and all the contemporary interest in either replacing psychoanalysis with neurology and pharmacology or turning Freud into a crypto-biologist, I read him to be pretty much in sympathy with the following non-reductive (and candidly dualistic) interpretation of the (in my view still unsolved) mind/body problem, as expressed by the famous 19th century British physicist John Tyndall. In 1868 Tyndall, who was one of the great natural scientists of that century and an erstwhile supporter of Charles Darwin's work in evolutionary biology, had this to say about the connection between mind and body, between soulful realities and physical realities, between the facts of consciousness and the physics of the brain. He said it in his Presidential Address to the Physical Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Quoting Tyndall:

"The passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable. Granted that a definite thought, and a definite molecular action in the brain occur simultaneously, we do not possess the intellectual organ, nor apparently any rudiment of the organ, which would enable us to pass by a process of reasoning from the one phenomenon to the other. They appear together but we do not know why. Were our minds and senses so expanded, strengthened and illuminated as to enable us to see and feel the very molecules of the brain, were we capable of following all their motions, all their groupings, all their electric discharges, if such there be, and were we intimately acquainted with the corresponding states of thought and feeling, we should be as far as ever from the solution of the problem. How are these physical processes connected with the facts of consciousness? The chasm between the two classes of phenomena would still remain intellectually impassable."

Notice that John Tyndall takes it for granted that events in consciousness and events in the brain appear together. Nevertheless, as he suggests, the mere observation of mental and physical event co-occurrence is not the end of the mind-body problem as a problem, but only its puzzling beginning, which must, given that the chasm to which he points is in the nature of things, end in puzzlement.

Of course, Tyndall's and Freud's caution about the mysterious and mind-boggling theoretical or intellectual disjunction between the facts of consciousness and our understanding of the nature and workings of the physical world are not heeded very much these days, at least not in the biological, medical and cognitive sciences in the academy. And it is quite fashionable these days to be of the opinion (or at least to confidently assert) that the mind/body problem has been empirically solved by recent work in the brain sciences using new observational technologies which show that thoughts occur simultaneously with physical events in the brain. Yet that observation is not really news, given that it is an empirical fact that John Tyndall was well aware of in 1868 and Descartes was well aware of even earlier. As Tyndall makes crystal clear that fact of temporal contiguity is just one of the reasons for positing of the mind/body problem in the first place and not a theoretical or intellectual solution to the problem at all.

Not only is Freud's practical dualism out of fashion. Nearly 130 years after Joseph Breuer applied his talking cure to alleviate the symptoms of a young woman who was suffering from what was thought to be a clinical case of hysteria, the main hysteria experienced in North America today is the collective panic felt by psychoanalysts contemplating their own professional extinction and witnessing their own eradication from some major sections of the American academy (including for example, their disappearance from most departments of psychiatry, psychology and cognitive science). Although it is noteworthy that Freud is alive and well on Broadway, and in the humanities and (ironically) in schools of religion at universities throughout the United States.

Nevertheless the anxious worry among contemporary psychoanalysts that Freud's appeal during the last century might have been an illusion without a future is an irrepressible undeniable fact. 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 these days, thereby making psychoanalysts feel defensive and confirming the validity of their fear that the answer may be "No." (Part 2 of this trilogy - Freud's enemies list, an enumeration of schools of thought hostile to Freud - will appear in my next "Cultural Commentary" blog).

Who's Who in the group photograph?