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Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science, And Psychoanalysis Paperback – September 16, 1996
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But to any scientifically-inclined peruser, it fails to deliver but a sense of biased aggression.
First Webster starts with a psychodynamically-inclining analysis of Freud's personality. It would be interesting to see why, in a book intended to attack Freud as a maker of ideas, it is Freud's ideas and their derivatives that are used to pursue this goal in a quite evident ad hominem attempt. But the author would surely reply that he is just resorting to that poetic psychology he accuses Freud to have plagiarized and distorted into a pseudoscientific endeavour, so perhaps this objection can be discounted. And besides, we are told that Freud's personality is relevant as a token of his tendency to falsify evidence and misreport clinical cases in name of his desires of self-aggrandizement.
Any honest knower of psychoanalysis and its history can but admit that Freud had more than his own share of megalomania, and in a Kuhnian perspective we all know that scientific trends are matter of consensus and authority as much as of evidence, as Freud knew all too well. Yet in a sense the subjective faults of the Father of Psychoanalysis are just any researcher's faults, or Webster perhaps assumes that people publish out of charity, and not ambition? The field of psychology deals with complex phenomena, and as such, Freud's initial post-hoc rationalisations (the subject of all the book's criticism) are certainly less than scientific: it remains to be seen if they led in time to valuable insights or only, as Webster would imply, to the birth of a religious cult.
A rather specific and surely reasonable attack on the nosographic construct "Hysteria" follows, intended to show how the foundations of Freud's speculations rested on shaky grounds. While it is certainly true that Hysteria is a mysterious entity, and that temporal lobe epilepsy is a more than reasonable alternative explanation, in this we already perceive a less-than-forward criticism. Pages are spent on the examination of Le Log's case, but it is only in the notes that we are told that Freud never saw Le Log, as Charcot treated him after the Austrian Physician had left Paris. This case, and the others Freud reported are certainly dubious. But Freud, later on, was trying to explain psychoneuroses in general, not hysteria per se, and again we are to see if what Freud deduced from his erroneous or limited knowledge of hysteria cannot be scientifically useful.
And what Freud knew as psychoneuroses, exist even today as recognized pathologies, under the names of anxiety disorders, dissociative disorders, etc. Columbus did, indeed, set out with the intent to reach Cathay, but this doesn't erase America from maps.
On the other hand, Webster himself openly asserts that some cases of hysteria are observed even today (at page 84 for example), and doesn't provide any conclusive evidence to claim that all cases of hysteria are cases of temporal lobe epilepsy (a rather strong experimental claim that would be) and neither that the reasons for the reduction of the prevalence of this, supposed or real, pathological condition, are to be traced in its nonexistence: in a bio-psycho-social perspctive, several alternative explanations are possible, first and foremeost the disappearance of important, to date unidentified, risk factors.
But there is in truth no reason to discuss the book's conclusions on hysteria as in reality, these do constitute only an attack to what is an outdated vision of the phenomenon Freud investigated. Again, what we should be evaluating are the results he derived on human psychology, not the existence of a nosographic category. It is well known that at times, correct conclusions can be reached based on wrong premises: the observations of early physicists are still valid today, even though ether and caloric have been proven to be misconsceptions.
At times not remembering that investigations of the mind are not the domain of cultural studies alone, because the mind is a physical object after all, ie. the brain (or at least the informational state of that physical object), Webster proceeds in a trial to some of the most important figures of 19th century psychiatry and psychology, openly and unflinchingly distributing labels of "scientificity" and "unscientificity" based on their attitudes, as much as their theories and practices. Striking is in particular, the treatment of Fechner, whose fault is to have cultivated mystical and religious fancies (like Goethe, Jung, Newton, Pascal and many others before him). Webster apparently forgets that the basic law of perception if infact Weber-Fechner's law, named after that uncanny religious figure.
Noticeable is also the insufficiently documented discussion of Freud's "Project for a Scientific Psychology". It would have been benefitted by a less than nonexistent knowledge, or at least mention, of the field of Consciousness studies, and of the related works of, to mention an earlier case, Karl Pribram and Merton Gill (Freud's Project Re-assessed, 1976), containing a less skeptical (or even at times truly enthusiastic) account of the intuitions present in that fundamental work.
Webster's attack on the existence of Neurasthenia, is even more disheartening. We could discuss the cultural factors involved in psychopathology and the problems with any descriptive take on mental illness from DSM-IVTR to ICD-10, but I deem it irrelevant, as yet this argumentation fails to touch the insights of Freud, and to discuss their relevance.
From these arguments to the quarrel with Jung onwards, what strikes is not the inadequacy of Webster's journalistic effort, but the implicit or explicit idea that this book can constitute a decisive settlement of the questions raised by psychoanalysis, a settlement provided not by a psychiatrist, psychologist or a neuroscientist, but by what is at times more or less an attempt at character-assassination by a well-read literary researcher.
It is the unfortunate truth about life that people (even those who advance or seem to advance our understanding of reality) have plenty of faults. Freud, I suspect, was not exempt from this human characteristic. But if Webster rightly discusses the inappropriate hero myth which surrounded his figure, we can but ask ourselves why he would expect a simple man to be a hero if he has to advance science. Is he not making the same mistake he reproaches to so many (including Thomas Mann and the whole 20th century culture): isn't he looking for perfection in human beings, and, instead of hallucinating its presence, taking its obvious absence as a justification to reject scientific theses?
Why shouldn't we instead read a book on the neuroscientific, epistemological and psychiatric arguments to reject, or to accept, Freud's conclusions? Grunbaum's "the Foundations of Psychoanalysis" remains, for the skeptic,a much better choice, in my opinion.
Most of Freud’s ideas are so ridiculous that you can’t help laughing at them. For example, Webster points out that Freud claimed that in dreams staircases were “unquestionably symbols of copulation”, and that women’s hats “can very often be interpreted with certainty as a genital organ (usually a man’s)...”
But it is not funny that Freud’s ideas have led so many people astray, often with tragic consequences. For example, Stephen Jay Gould (in his essay on “Male Nipples and Clitoral Ripples”) showed that millions of women suffered frustration and misery because they were persuaded to accept Freud’s claim that their sexuality was dysfunctional if they did not achieve a “vaginal orgasm” as opposed to a supposedly “infantile” clitoral orgasm.
Underlying all the specific things wrong with Freudianism is the fundamental problem that it is totally unscientific. Darwinism is a scientific theory because it can be tested against the real world. There is evidence to support it. This does not apply to Freud’s ideas, which are basically untestable assertions – sometimes plausible but more often bizarre.
Freud was an expert at imposing his own preconceived ideas onto vulnerable, suggestible and gullible patients, and thousands of psychotherapists (whether well-intentioned or downright fraudulent) have followed in his footsteps.
Where I disagree with Richard Webster is when he says that Marxism is as unscientific as Freudianism. In fact, Marxist theories can be tested against the real world, and there is enough evidence around us to show that Marx gave us the foundations for understanding society, just as Darwin gave us the foundations for understanding nature. (I am talking here about genuine Marxism, not the Stalinism of the bureaucratic state capitalist tyrannies which have tainted the words “communism” and “Marxism”.)
We live in a capitalist society which screws up people’s minds as well as their lives. But Freudian (or post-Freudian) pseudoscience does not help us to understand this process.