Acknowledge Freud’s mistakes

Submitted by Anon on 24 June, 2006 - 1:14

Thomas Carolan is far too generous to Freud (Solidarity 3/93). Freud was insightful, and drew attention to the field of psychology; he had ideas that led others after him to develop theories and methods that have helped people since. Freud’s theories continue to have great influence today. But he got many things wrong. His methodology was also highly suspect. If we are to comment on Freud fairly, we need to make these criticisms, as well as recognising the positive impact he has had.

Firstly his methodology. Thomas Carolan excuses him on the basis that there was not the facilities to allow Freud to make his observations in a scientific way — despite the fact Pavlov, at the same time, was doing exactly that. Indeed, although psychoanalysis is still used therapeutically, many problems are better treated by behaviourist ideas supported by modern cognitive theories.

We rightly criticise the pseudo left, cultural relativists and advocators of religious ideas for failing to deal with reality. We claim instead to be materialists, dealing wherever possible with hard facts, putting our theories up for debates and scrutiny. Freud was anything but this. He frequently based his theories on the existence of unobservable energies, based on his own unsubstantiated, untestable interpretation of his client‘s narratives and behaviour.

Freud did not merely fail to test his theories, he ignored much of the evidence he had, and even falsified and destroyed data (see F J Sulloway and H Ellenberger). Freud created theories that were not testable, and disobeyed the Rule of Occam’s Razor (an important rule especially in the social sciences), that, in the absence of evidence to the contrary the simplest explanation is normally the correct one.

The fact that no-one could criticise Freud suggests that Freud did not really want his theories to be tested. Anyone who disagreed with him was accused of “unconscious resistance” a defence mechanism, where people are reacting against the theories due to their sexual nature. However, as Webster (1996) explains, there have been many critics of Freud who are not offended by the sexual nature of the theory continue to disagree with it. Moreover, that people who are offended by sexual theories are as likely to be offended by an incorrect theory as a correct one.

Freud’s faulty methodology led to some odd conclusions. An example is on child abuse. Originally, as Freud was listening to his clients, he came to the conclusion that there was a huge amount of child sexual abuse going on in society, but often as adults people are unable to remember it. In 1895 Freud developed his “seduction theory” in which he said his hysterical patients had suffered child abuse, their inability to deal with it leading to their hysteria. People didn’t like this idea, and in 1897 he wrote to Fliess saying he had changed his theory, coming to believe in “false memory syndrome”, whereby clients who feel guilty about their own childhood sexuality project this onto adults who “abused” them i.e. it was their fantasy. This theory was later published in 1905. This view of the survivors of child abuse continues to be held by many to this day. Freud’s theorising was based on the same “data” with no scientific explanation for his change of mind.

Freud’s whole perspective on psychological distress is that it is due to faulty sexual development in childhood. Although clearly early experiences and sexuality are important factors, and Freud made an important discovery when suggesting that children experience sexuality at all, we know that these are not the only factors influencing mental health.

Although Thomas Carolan gives the example of Alfred Adler who was a socialist “disciple” of Freud’s (and who later “defected” from Freud), most of Freud’s followers have been much more conservative (indeed only the very rich could ever afford the time to become a Freudian therapist). Thomas Carolan suggests Freud’s theories could have as easily led to conclusions that society needed to be changed, but this is not what Freud suggested, these were not his conclusions.

Freud’s theories focus entirely on the individual’s failure to develop, they take no account of society‘s influence on mental health. In addition Freudian psychoanalysis focuses on the therapist/analyst as the expert in the situation who imparts their wisdom to the client during analysis and therefore has a very passive view of the individual concerned.

Many of the conclusions that Freud came to, served to justify, and pathologise prejudices against the traditionally oppressed in our capitalist society: women, children, and the “sexually abnormal”. As the Thomas Carolan points out, Freud theorised that as children women have “penis envy”. The author supposes that Freud did not mean this literally because Freud was referring to the ideas of small children. But the whole point in Feud‘s theories is that he uses the experiences and conclusions of childhood to explain adult psychological behaviour. Freud believed that adult women continued to be haunted by “penis envy” resulting in the “problem” of the “masculinity” of women! Furthermore, Freud concludes that women can only ever be truly happy in motherhood, preferably where they have borne a son (thus resolving their penis envy).

This is clearly misogynistic and saying Freud was a “man of his times” is not a good enough excuse — after all, there were feminists who criticised him at the time, Freud responded to their criticisms, by saying that men and women are not of equal worth. But even without these debates, we should still criticise the mistakes Freud made.

Anyone who deviated from Freud’s idea of normal sexuality was said to have become stuck in a premature stage of sexual development. In particular homosexual men were said to be prone to hysteria, and paedophilia; homosexual relationships were said to resemble that of mother and child. Far from liberating ideas about sexuality (as the article suggested), Freud served to reinforce existing stereotypes relating to gender and sexuality.

Freud may have been a man of his times, but we still need to criticise him for the things he got wrong. And just because the Stalinists criticised him doesn’t mean we shouldn’t too.

Lynne Moffat, SE London

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.