Did you really want to eat that last piece of cake, or were you secretly thinking about your mother?
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.