The Legacy of Freud

08 February 2014


This week, it’s the complex Legacy of Freud.

On the one hand, it would be hard to deny that Freud was one of the towering intellectual figures of the 20th Century. Arguably, he single handedly changed the way we think about ourselves once and for all.  To be sure, he wasn’t the first to think about the idea of unconscious beliefs and desires. That idea goes back over two thousand years ago to Epicurus. Unlike Epicurus, Freud developed detailed, putatively scientific hypotheses about the exact workings of the unconscious mind. And those theories basically ruled the roost for several decades more or less unchallenged.

There is, however, one small problem with Freud’s rich and detailed theories. They were all false. All of his main hypotheses, every single one of them, from the Oedipal Complex, to penis envy, castration anxiety, and his obsession with sexual repression -- are just wrong.  Some people even see his views as mere pseudo-science. Early feminists thought that his views were shot through with patriarchal and sexist dogma. There may still be a die-hard psychoanalytical cult that continues to worship at the feet of the master. And some people definitely still take Freud quite seriously in literature and the arts and, to a lesser extent, in philosophy. But genuine scientific psychologists mostly don’t take Freud seriously at all anymore.

So what exactly are we to make of the legacy of Freud? The first thing to say is that even if we admit that most of Freud’s theories have proven to be false, that still doesn’t necessarily rob him of his standing as one of the great psychological theorists of all time. It’s one thing to reject the details of Freud’s theory, but the scientific spirit of Freud may still live on. Freud’s single greatest insight was that most of what goes on in the mind is hidden from our conscious view. He taught us that the conscious self is the result of a complex interplay of subterranean forces. Just about every single post-Freudian psychologist still believes that. So in that sense, we are all Freudians now.

Of course, the details do matter -- especially if we’re talking science, rather than philosophy or literature. Take his tripartite division of the mind into the id, the ego, and the super-ego.  Now that’s a nice sounding theory. It’s a lot like Plato’s theory of the soul. Unfortunately for Freud, though, there isn’t a shred of empirical evidence for it. And one might be easily be lead to conclude that despite Freud’s protestations to the contrary, in the end his theories just aren’t scientific at all!

But we mustn’t be too hasty here. Just because a theory turns out to be false, doesn’t mean it’s not scientific. By that measure, Newton theories aren’t scientific either. But that’s an absurd view. Newton was, of course, one of the greatest scientists in history.   

Perhaps Freudian psychology is related to modern psychology in exactly the way that Newtonian physics is related to modern physics. Sure, modern psychology supersedes Freudian psychology. Well, modern physics also supersedes Newtonian physics. But nobody would say that Newtonian physics is totally false or unscientific. And perhaps we shouldn’t say that Freudian psychology is either. 

Of course, the big difference is that Newton’s theories are extraordinarily good approximations of later physical theories. To this day, they still work well -- really, really well -- at least when you restrict them to large enough objects moving at slow enough speeds. It’s not clear that you can say anything like that for Freud. Freud’s theories aren’t approximately true. They’re just plain false.

Lest you think I’m just stubbornly determined to deny Freud his due, let me assure that I have nothing personal against Freud. I’m just exercising a healthy dose of philosophical skepticism. I’ve never had a bad experience with any Freudian psychoanalyst  Have no repressed resentment that I am ublimating into conscious philosophical skepticism. But I am genuinely puzzled exactly what to make of Freud in retrospect. Should we really see him as a Newton-like figure -- on whose shoulders we all still stand? Or should we just forget about him and his outmoded theories and consign him to the dustbin of history?   

I’d love to know what you think. So, join in the conversation.  

Comments (6)

David Livingstone Smith's picture

David Livingsto...

Sunday, February 9, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

Hi Ken,

Hi Ken,
The dichotomy that you end with (Freud was a Newton-like figure or he should be consigned to the dustbin of history) isn't the best way to think about Freud.  First of all, we should concentrate on Freud's work rather than the man himself.  Freud's thinking had very many components, some of which are blatantly wrong and others of which were remarkably prescient.  One of the problems assessing Freud these days is that it is so widely thought that Freud's work is without value that scientifically-minded people (and here in include many philosophers) do not bother to investigate what he had to say.  I was a Freudian psychotherapist before moving to philosophy (in fact, my PhD research was on Freud as a philosopher) so I think I have an informed basis for assessing both the value and deficits of Freudian thought.  In the end, I am sympathetic with philosopher of science Clark Glymour's remark that "Freud's thinking about issues in the philosophy of mind is often better than much of what goes on in contemporary philosophy, and it is sometimes as good as the best....[E]ven when Freud had the wrong answer to a question, or refused to give an answer, he knew what the question was and what was at stake in it."  Freud ought to be assessed, at least in part, as a naturalistic philosopher of psychology.

Allan Lichtenberg's picture

Allan Lichtenberg

Sunday, February 9, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

You are not thinking about

You are not thinking about science any more clearly than Freud did, when you say that Freud's theories are "wrong". A theory is not wrong until it is proven wrong, and Freud's speculations have not been proven at all. There are better speculations about various problems that Freud addressed, but they have not been proven either. When one is engaged in disciplines like psychology or philosophy, where essentially nothing can be proved, it is best to be humble. Freud introduced many interesting ideas, that are worthy of thinking about, and he can be praised for having done this. His problem was that he thought of himself as a scientist, when he was not doing science.
Allan L.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, February 9, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

I'll lend my unstudied

I'll lend my unstudied opinion to this discussion, only because I heard about, and then read about Freud in the 1960s and 70s, probably long after he had been largely dismissed. I was not educated in the science of psychology, nor in much of anything else at that time. But, his ideas were intriguing, if somewhat bizarre, and I knew several education seekers who may have ultimately benefited from Ziggy's notions about sex and the human being. Having said that much, I think (this is what we do herein) that Freud's legacy is ABOUT where those notions went wrong, and HOW they led psychology to do ask better questions and do better research towards arriving at solutions. I am not sure what a "naturalistic philosopher of psychology" might be. And, I suppose, my comments/opinions echo, at least in part, those of Allan L. In any case, welcome to the forum, David and Allan, if you have not been here before. Oh, by the way, Allan, do I know you? If so, my brother, your high school chum, is doing well and the wife and kids are good too.Synchronicity? Hmmmm...

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, February 18, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

Having re-parsed the comments

Having re-parsed the comments from David and Allan, I realized that our ideas about  Freud are not so different. Dr. Freud had some of it right and some of it wrong. Freud's own mental calamities likely clouded his judgment. So it may be true of other brilliant minds. Thinking alone is laudable and certainly foments genius. But, thinking alone,defectively,leads to faulty logic and ill-conceived conclusions. I suppose this is normal-human. Dennett, like him or no, has often said we need to make mistakes, in order to learn. Yes.I think so too...

alex619's picture


Sunday, February 1, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

ng alone,defectively,leads to

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Monday, May 30, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Freud's power is in his

Freud's power is in his writing. His corpus of writings paint a portrait (please excuse mixed metaphor) of the human psyche which, as you say yourself, we all continue to find compelling to this day and the reason Harold Bloom dubbed him the greatest modern writer. The question, to my mind, for all sciences that find themselves later superseded by more correct (i.e., deemed more scientific) ones, then, is, to what degree do they all draw their power to convince from rhetorical devices and not what we recognize as science? Does this apply to Aristotle, for instance? Newton? Anyway, what explains Freud's enduring influence (the uber-trope in Harold Bloom's theory) is the writing itself, irrespective of any scientific provability.