What Has Replaced Freud?

Sunday, August 6, 2023
First Aired: 
Sunday, February 28, 2021

What Is It

Although the concept that we can have thoughts and desires hidden from consciousness can be traced back to antiquity, it was Freud who truly popularized it in the twentieth century. Now Freud’s theory of the unconscious mind has mostly been abandoned for being unscientific and lacking in empirical evidence. So what has replaced it? Are newer theories that reference “automatic systems” or “implicit attitudes” any more scientific than Freud’s? And why is so much research about the unconscious mind being conducted in business schools? Josh and Ray are quite conscious of their guest, Blakey Vermeule from Stanford University, author of "The New Unconscious: A Literary Guided Tour."

Listening Notes

What’s the latest wisdom about the unconscious mind? Can modern scientists do better than Freud? Josh admits that Freud popularized the idea that we often don’t know why we do the things that we do, but he takes issue with the fact that many of Freud’s claims were unscientific and had no evidence. Ray pushes back by pointing out that science isn’t a static enterprise, and modern science is also struggling with a replication crisis. 

The philosophers welcome Blakey Vermeule, Professor of English at Stanford University, to the show. Blakey believes that we’ve made a terrible mistake in ditching the Freudian framework, since it emphasized a deep lack of access to the unconscious mind. Ray brings up the work of 20th century psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, and Blakey explains their concept of the dual process brain. Josh asks if the pessimism of other prominent figures such as Nietzsche or Milgram compares to that of Freud, to which Blakey responds that what has truly been lost in the post-Freudian collapse is the shared sense of meaning making. 

In the last segment of the show, Josh, Ray, and Blakey discuss behavioral economics, the importance of transcendence, and the need for the humanities. Ray wonders about how to exactly situate meaning, prompting Blakey to emphasize that humans have a tremendous need to impose order on a disordered world. In the emergence of new fields and studies after Freud, Blakey argues that humanists, those who tell stories and make meaning, have been largely left out of the conversation. 

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 4:14) → Holly J. McDede seeks out testimonies about repressed and false memories. 
  • From the Community (Seek to 42:48) → Diane from Portland, Oregon questions the inherent cruelty in nature and the problem of evil.



Josh Landy  
What's the latest wisdom about the unconscious mind?

Ray Briggs  
Can modern scientists do better than Freud?

Josh Landy  
Could anyone do worse?

Comments (8)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, February 23, 2021 -- 4:38 AM

Opinion: I am not certain,

Opinion: I am not certain, but replacement may not be an appropriate characterization. Freud posed interesting theories. Much of what he said was likely as good as anything else for the time. Seems to me that, if anything, neuroscience, psychology, and perhaps even philosophy have supplanted the good doctor. Just thinking, and advocating the devil.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, March 4, 2021 -- 5:14 PM

Freud may be dead, but

Freud may be dead, but science isn't in too great a shape either. The p value crisis, lack of repetitions and loss of public confidence has curable patients seeking quackery. There are still some theories that do help. Cognitive behavioral therapy for certain mental illness is a good example.

Since Freud didn't have a scientific model, science can't necessarily replace his model with a better one. The current models aren't telling as compelling a story. That will be frustrating for humans. Some may prefer stories they understand vs. a science that says we just don't know. In either case it is best to listen to data and with some skepticism ... experts until we get a clearer picture.

These are Kahneman's own words - from Thinking, Fast and Slow.

'System 1 and System 2 are so central to the story I tell in this book that I must make it absolutely clear that they are fictitious characters. '

The new models are better than Freud because they don't pretend to be. Enough with the pretending already. I'm all in for uncertainty until I can get results that repeat. Even if I don't live to see that day.

A couple good reads that have helped me on this are:

Kandel, Eric R. (2018), The Disordered Mind: What Unusual Brains Tell Us About Ourselves, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN 9780374287863.

Barrett, Lisa F (2017), How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN 0544133315.

Barrett also has a more accessible book out last year... but it doesn't tell her story which is basically the same as Kandel's ... they both are trained psychotherapists who turned to neuroscience to retrain (both multiple times) to find answers. Both are very supportive of modern therapy, but not outside the data.

We are on the precipice of a revolution in our understanding of the brain, human body and previously squishy biology all yielding to imaging and modelling that will tell a story much better than Freud ever dreamed. We just aren't there yet.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, March 6, 2021 -- 3:53 PM

Nice work, Tim. Not people

Nice work, Tim. Not people whom I have read. Am sure, though, they have many things to offer. My time is limited. For the rest of the PT folks, I offer this: over the gamut of PT topics, there have been repetitive and/or over-lapping posts, approaching related topics in slightly differing ways: cultural; economic; sociological; political; and epiphenominal. If you are gathering research for someone's thesis or dissertation, fine. Not my concern. Except for the fact that I need not share insights, for which my input will never get more than some vague footnote Other well-positioned folks, to whom
I have reached out, are equally less-interested in my work. OK. I will read what I read; write what I write and WORK for myself. That is all there is...

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Tuesday, March 9, 2021 -- 6:03 AM

There is more than that

There is more than that Harold, but that will do for sure.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, March 19, 2021 -- 4:40 PM

Still looking for a treatment

Still looking for a treatment of truth. Am working on that. Have wanted to see something here. It appears truth may be too abstract; too relative; too epiphenominal. I have offered a tract, as contribution, but have received no expression of interest. I get it. Mostly. This does not mean I think it
Is intelligible. As I have admitted, I am an autodidact. There have been comparatively few of us who have moved establishmentarian dogma. Burke is a paragon,in my lifetime. I am sure there have been others. But the field of philosophy is, uh, narrow? How can that be? Hmmmmmm...

LFOlsnesLea's picture


Sunday, April 11, 2021 -- 10:06 AM

Useful tips:

Useful tips:
Depression: abuses, torture, exposure to continuous threats
Schizophrenia: lack of morality, losing one's morality, "newer" self, difficulty to relate to morality and ethics
Insofar psychology is applied at all before psychiatry then one should relate to these above facts, more or less established.
Therefore the future of psychology in terms of diagnostics must run with psychiatry and its best practice.

This way one is free from making these cloudy assumptions about relations to mother and father and so on in mentally sick patients and see it for real in most healthy people who can relate naturally, not to say the least ethically and morally to these issues, finding minute differences and optimal children upbringing.

End note: there's no use in trying to compete with psychiatry as psychiatry today (2021) is vastly superior to psychology in terms of healing patients from mental illnesses. Best wishes, Dr. Olsnes-Lea

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, May 7, 2021 -- 11:18 AM



If by useful, you mean truthful, then associating schizophrenia with morality is false.

What is useful about this? Schizophrenia is a developmental ailment of the brain. A clinician loved one or fellow human can only view difficulty relating to morality in one who has schizophrenia through that lens. A person with schizophrenia has difficulty relating to reality.

You are pointing to clinical symptoms, perhaps? A lack of morality is not uniformly true to a diagnosis of schizophrenia as it might be for frontotemporal dementia (FTD), for example. Schizophrenia affects regions of the brain like FTD, but it can be treated, unlike FTD. It's important to stress that a person with a broken leg can't walk but still knows how to walk. A person with schizophrenia still has morality, unlike a person with FTD who tragically may have permanently lost their sense of social presence and moral compass.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, February 1, 2022 -- 10:28 AM

This is not meant to ridicule

This is not meant to ridicule a great mind. Only to poke a little fun. Years ago, a friend gave me some copies of prints. These included Maslow; Freud and one other science figure. The picture of Maslow, smiling, had a caption about the great man's amusement over hearing of self-actualization. The print of Freud, behind the wheel of a vintage automobile, was captioned with: Freud, going somewhere. I was younger. Did not know much about Freud. Still don't.
If I get it right, now, the pictogram was poking fun. Asking, perhaps: WHERE was Freud going?
I was not in tune with much double-entendre stuff then. At first, I found it annoying. Later, amusing. Still later, instructive. Funny how maturity does that.
Freud does not need be replaced. He needs to be, uh, subsumed---if that is the proper term. He showed us there are always different ways of approaching problems. Those need not always be quite right---but are not either, necessarily, all wrong...

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