Doubt is not a pleasant condition,
but certainty is an absurd one.
This book is about psychoanalysis, the psychological theory originated by Sigmund Freud almost a century ago. He believed that he laid the foundations for a science of psychology, and he also claimed to have originated a method for treating mentally ill patients which alone could lead to a permanent cure. This book assesses the present day status of Freud’s theories in general, and evaluates his claims concerning the scientific status of these theories, and the value of his therapeutic methods, in particular. In doing so, we must begin with a chapter on Freud the man: that odd, contradictory and somewhat mysterious personality behind the theory and practice of psychoanalysis.
In many ways this must strike scientists as an odd beginning to a book of this kind. In discussing quantum mechanics, we do not normally begin with a description of Planck’s personality; nor do we usually discuss the lives of Newton and Einstein in dealing with relativity theory. Yet in the case of Freud it is impossible to gain a proper insight into his life’s work without paying due regard to the man himself. After all, much of his theory is derived from his own analysis of his neurotic personality; his discussion of the interpretation of dreams is often based on the analysis of his own dreams; and his ideas about treatment are largely derived from his attempts to psychoanalyse himself and cure his own neurosis. Freud himself, so it has been said, is the only man who has been able to impress his own neurosis on the world, and remould humanity in his own image. This is certainly an achievement; whether it deserves to be regarded as a scientific achievement is another question, and one with which we will deal in succeeding chapters.
Certainly to many scientists psychoanalysis seems more a work of art than a work of science. In art, the vision of the artist is all-important; it is subjective, and unlike science it is not cumulative. Our science is greatly superior to that of Newton, but our drama is grossly inferior to that of Shakespeare or even the Ancient Greeks. Our poetry can hardly compare with that of Milton, Wordsworth or Shelley, yet our mathematics is vastly superior to that of Gauss or any of the ancient giants.
Just as the poet and the dramatist draw upon their own lives, so did Freud attempt to wrest insights from his own experiences, emotional upheavals and neurotic reactions. Psychoanalysis as an art form may be acceptable; psychoanalysis as a science has always evoked protests from scientists and philosophers of science.
Freud himself was, of course, aware of this fact, and proclaimed that he was not a scientist, but a conquistador. The conflict was deeply embedded in his mind, and he often voiced contradictory opinions about the scientific status of psychoanalysis, and his work generally. These doubts will be discussed later; here let us merely note that in many important, indeed fundamental, ways, psychoanalysis deviates from the tenets of orthodox science. ‘So much the worse for orthodox science!’ many people have exclaimed. ‘What is so sacred about science that we should reject the wonderful insights of the sage and the prophet!’ Such an attitude is indeed often shown by psychoanalysts themselves, who would wish to reinterpret the term ‘science’ so as to include psychoanalysis. Freud himself would not have agreed. He wanted psychoanalysis to be accepted as a science in the orthodox sense, and he would have regarded such efforts as unwarranted reinterpretation of his views. Such a way of looking at his life’s work is incompatible with his own ideas. For him, psychoanalysis was science, or it was nothing. We will return to this question in the last chapter; here let us merely state that in this book we will investigate the claims of psychoanalysis tobe a science, using the term in its orthodox sense, i.e. as Naturwissenschaft and not as Geisteswissenschaft (these two terms are widely used in German to discriminate between the natural sciences and literary and historical studies, Wissenschaft being used indiscriminately to describe any kind of academic investigation).
Freud was born on 6 May 1856, in the little town of Freiberg in Austria, some 150 miles north-east of Vienna in territory now ceded to Czechoslovakia. His mother was the third wife of a cloth merchant, and he was her first child; however, his father already had two grown-up sons from his first marriage. His mother was twenty years younger than her husband, and gave birth to seven more children, none of whom could compete with Sigmund who was for ever her ‘undisputed darling’, This maternal preference led Freud to say that his later self-confidence in the face of hostility was due to the fact that he was his mother’s favourite. The family was Jewish, but not Orthodox.
When Freud was four years old, his father’s business began to fail, and the family finally settled in Vienna, where Freud went to the Speri Gymnasium, where he was to prove a good pupil, being top of the class for seven years. He was particularly outstanding at languages, learning Latin and Greek and being able to read both English and French fluently; in addition he later taught himself Spanish and Italian. His major interests were in literature and philosophy, but he finally decided to study medicine, and at the age of seventeen he entered the University of Vienna. He graduated after eight years, having dabbled in chemistry and zoology, and finally settled down to do research in the physiological laboratory of Ernst Bruecke where he studied for six years, publishing various papers of a technical nature. Forced to earn a living, he finally took his degree and in 1882 entered the General Hospital in Vienna where, as a junior physician, he still carried on research and published on the topic of cerebral anatomy. Indeed, he was to continue this interest in neurology until he was forty-one, publishing monographs on aphasia and on cerebral palsy in children.
When he was twenty-nine he was appointed Privatdozent (lecturer) in Neuropathology; he was also awarded a travelling scholarship which enabled him to study for five months with Charcot in Paris. Charcot was famous for his studies in hypnosis, and it was through his association with Charcot that Freud became interested in psychological rather than physiological matters. On his return from Paris he married, and started in private practice, seeking to achieve fame as a scientist by studying the neurotic behaviour of his patients, and attempting to construct a theory which would account for neurotic disorders, thus enabling him to effect the cures that had been sought in vain by many of his predecessors. He was extremely ambitious; while still a student he wrote to his fiancée about his ‘future biographers’. An early attempt to achieve fame led him to investigate the potential uses of the drug cocaine; he was particularly interested in its ability to reduce pain and create lasting exhilaration. He found that the drug helped him overcome periodic bouts of depression and apathy which frequently interfered with his work and seemed to overwhelm him. He failed to realize the addictive properties of the drug, and indiscriminately advocated its use to family and friends and also, in a paper he wrote on its uses, to the world at large. Cocaine was to play a vital role in his development, as we shall see later.
Following Charcot, Freud used hypnosis on his private patients, but was dissatisfied with it. Instead, he became interested in a new method of treatment which had been introduced by his friend Josef Breuer, who had developed ‘talking therapy’, a new technique for treating hysteria, one of the major neurotic disorders of the time. In this condition, paralyses and other physical disturbances appear without any apparent organic basis; this disorder seems very culture-bound, as it has almost completely disappeared in modern times – when one of my Ph.D. students wanted to investigate the ability of hysterics to form conditioned reflexes, he was unable over a period of years to find more than a very small number of patients showing even rudimentary signs of this classical disorder! Breuer had a patient called Bertha Pappenheim, a well-connected and talented young woman whose case was later written up under the pseudonym of ‘Anna O.’. He relaxed her under hypnosis and encouraged her to talk about anything that came into her mind, the apparent fountain-head of all ‘talking therapies’. After a long time the girl recounted a strong emotional reaction to a painful incident which she had apparently repressed from consciousness; as a consequence of this ‘catharsis’, her symptoms disappeared. (As we shall see later, this account, published jointly by Freud and Breuer in Studies in Hysteria, was seriously in error. The girl was suffering from a grave physical disease, not from a neurosis at all, and she was by no means ‘cured’ by the cathartic method used on her. The facts, as in many other cases published by Freud, were quite different from what he said.)
In any case, Breuer’s wife became jealous of the attraction which developed between Breuer and Bertha, so Breuer broke off the treatment, taking his wife to Venice for a second honeymoon. Freud, however, continued to work with this method, replacing hypnosis with the technique of free association, i.e. taking as a starting point events in his patients’ dreams, and getting the patients to say anything that came into their heads on thinking of particular items in the dreams. This method of free association had been originated by Sir Francis Galton, the celebrated English polymath and one of the founders of the London School of Psychology. Galton, like Jung forty years later, used a list of one hundred words and got his subjects (as well as himself) to say the first word that came into their mind, timing their reactions. He was very impressed with the meaningfulness of these associations. As he said:
They lay bare the foundations of a man’s thoughts with curious distinctness, and exhibit his mental anatomy with more vividness and truth than he would probably care to publish to the world … perhaps the strongest impression left by these experiments regards the multifariousness of the work done by the mind in a state of half-consciousness, and the valid reason they afford for believing in the existence of still deeper strata of mental operations, sunk wholly below the level of consciousness, which may account for such mental phenomena as cannot otherwise be explained.
Here is another quotation from Galton, concerning his experiments with word association:
[The results] gave me an interesting and unexpected view of the number of the operations of the mind and of the obscure depths in which they took place, of which I had been little conscious before. The general impression they have left upon me is that which many of us have experienced when the basement of our house happens to be under thorough sanitary repairs, and we realise for the first time the complex system of drains and gas and water pipes, flues, bell-wires and so forth, upon which our comfort depends, but which are usually hidden out of sight, and with whose existence, as long as they acted well, we had never troubled ourselves.
C. T. Blacker, who was General Secretary of the Eugenics Society and wrote a book on Galton, commented: It is, I think, a remarkable fact that Galton, a shy man who had strong inhibitions about sex matters, should have been able to reach a conclusion of this sort through the determined application to himself of a system of investigation which he had himself devised. His achievement is a testimony to his candour and to his strength of will. For he overcame in himself the “resistances” which it is one of the tasks of the analyst to break down.’ In Galton’s own words, his self-imposed task ‘was a most repugnant and laborious work, and it was only by strong self-control that I went through my schedule according to programme’. The later works of Jung and Freud certainly amplified Galton’s conclusions, but did not really differ from them on any important point.
Galton published his observations in Brain, and as Sigmund Freud subscribed to the journal he would almost certainly have been familiar with Galton’s work. However, he never referred to Galton’s paper, nor did he credit Galton with priority in suggesting the existence of unconscious mental processes. This was typical of Freud, who was very chary in acknowledging contributions made by his predecessors, however directly they anticipated his own work. We shall find many other examples later on.
Beset by many neurotic symptoms, Freud undertook a protracted self-analysis; this, allied to his experiences with patients, led him to focus attention on childhood events, and to place particular emphasis on the importance of early sexual development in the formation of neuroses, and in the development of personality. Freud analysed his own dreams, and checked background details with his mother; he thought that he had found residues of repressed emotions from his early childhood; both of destructive and hostile feelings towards his father and of intense affection for his mother. Thus was the Oedipus complex born.
In 1900 he published his first major work on psychoanalysis, The Interpretation of Dreams. He continued to publish, attracted a band of devoted followers who later became the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society, and achieved professorial rank. He ruled over his followers in a very dictatorial fashion, excluding those who did not wholeheartedly agree with him in every particular. The most famous to be exiled was probably C. G. Jung. Freud himself was vaguely aware of this tendency when, in 1911, he commented as follows in a letter: ‘I have always made it my principle to be tolerant and not to exercise authority, but in practice it does not always work. It is like cars and pedestrians. When I began going about by car I got just as angry at the carelessness of pedestrians as I used to be at the recklessness of drivers.’ Psychoanalysis has remained a cult ever since, hostile to all outsiders, resolutely refusing to accept criticism however well-founded, and insisting on initiation rites involving several years of analysis by members of the circle.
There would be little point in relating here the remaining events in Freud’s life. Those relevant to points discussed in the later chapters will be described in the appropriate places. There are many biographies available but unfortunately most, if not all, of these are written by hagiographers – hero-worshippers who can see nothing wrong with their leader, and to whom any form of criticism is sacrilege. Even objective facts are often misinterpreted and misrepresented, and little credence can be given to these writings.
Much the same, alas, must be said about Freud’s own writings. He was not what one might call a truthful witness; we have already noted that he was extremely reluctant to acknowledge priority in others, however obvious to the historian this priority might be. He was determined to create a mythology centring on himself and his achievements; he saw himself as the ancient hero, battling against a hostile environment and finally emerging as the victor in spite of persecution. Supported by his followers he was quite successful in impressing the world with this completely untruthful picture of himself and his battles, but anyone who is familiar with the historical circumstances will note the difference between Freud’s account of the facts and the facts themselves. In reading and interpreting Freud’s writings, and those of his followers, it may be useful to follow a number of rules. We will set down these rules in what follows, and will also give examples to illustrate the need for following them.
The first rule, and it is a very important one for anyone wishing to understand the truth about psychoanalysis and Freud, is the following: Do not believe anything you see written about Freud or psychoanalysis, particularly when it is written by Freud or other psychoanalysis, without looking at the relevant evidence. In other words, what is stated is often incorrect, and may even be the opposite of what actually happened. Let us consider for a moment what Sulloway has called ‘the myth of the hero in the psychoanalytic movement’. He points out that ‘few scientific figures, if any, are as shrouded by legend as is Freud’. As he goes on to say, the traditional account of Freud’s achievements has acquired its mythological proportions at the expense of historical context. Indeed, he considers such a divorce between what actually happened and what is supposed to have happened to be a prerequisite for good myths, which invariably seek to deny history. Virtually all the major legends and misconceptions of traditional Freudian scholarship have sprung from the tendency to create the ‘myth of the hero’.
Readers may wonder why they should believe Sulloway (or indeed the present writer) more than they do Freud. Ultimately the answer must, of course, be that the reader should go back to the original data. Fortunately this is made easier when historians of the Freudian movement, like Sulloway, actually reprint some of the necessary documents, as he has done. If anything said in these pages seems unlikely, the reader has the option of going back to the original sources on which I have based my account. Here we are dealing with the myth of the hero, and the documentation required is given in full in Sulloway’s book.
There are two main features which characterize the myth of the hero in psychoanalytic history. The first is the emphasis on Freud’s intellectual isolation during his crucial years of discovery, and the exaggeration of the hostile reception given to his theories by a world not prepared for these revelations. The second is the emphasis on Freud’s ‘absolute originality’ as a man of science, crediting him with discoveries really made by his predecessors, contemporaries, rivals and followers. As Sulloway points out:
Such myths about Freud the psychoanalytic hero are far from being just a casual by-product of his highly charismatic personality or eventual life. Nor are these myths merely random distortions of the biographical facts. Rather, Freud’s life history has lent itself to an archetypal pattern shared by almost all hero myths, and his biography has often been remoulded to fit this archetypal pattern whenever suggestive biographical details have first pointed the way.
What are the major characteristics of the traditional myth of the hero? This usually involves a dangerous journey which has three common motifs: isolation, initiation, and return. The initial call to adventure is often precipitated by a ‘chance’ circumstance – in the case of Freud, the remarkable case of Anna O. There may be a temporary refusal of the call – Freud did not take up the topic again for some six ye...