Blog Post

Letting Go of Freud

For a long time I used to go to bed with a book by Freud.

My PhD dissertation was full of him; I assigned him in some of my classes; and even my first book—mea culpa!—mentions him here and there.

In retrospect I find that embarrassing, though not entirely surprising. Like many master thinkers, Freud was simply catnip for literary academics. His writing was seductive; he knew how to craft a good detective story, and he knew that detective stories have a powerful emotional effect, one that can be mistaken for conviction. Not only that, but he held out the promise of a renewed importance for the aesthetic (metaphor and metonymy explain dreams, the royal road to the unconscious! art is sublimation! jokes are worth an entire book!). Then again, his easy-to-apply method granted mediocre thinkers like myself an easy way to turn out term-papers. Above all, he offered us the impression of understanding everything about everything without breaking a sweat. Greed? Anal phase! Overeating? Oral phase! Paranoia? Repressed homosexuality! Whee!

I still think there are a few things worth saving amid all the wreckage. Things like the Unheimliche. The “imaginative mastery” idea. Talk therapy (some methods are indeed helpful, at least for some conditions). The undeniable intellectual-historical interest (Hollywood, Kafka, the Surrealists). Or the fact that Freud helped our society to overcome some of its prudishness (though let’s not get too carried away: he still thought homosexuality was a perversion).

Little by little, however, I have learned to let go of the rest.It started with the views about homosexuality and about women (penis envy, anyone? even the staunchest Freud-defenders tend to pass over that in silence). Then it was the Urhorde killing the Urvater (every bit as crazy—not coincidentally—as Girard’s theories of human social development).Then it was castration anxiety.Then it was the Oedipus complex (again, does anyone actually still believe in that?).Then it was the “death drive,” and Verneinung (a bit convenient… nein?), and the Massenindividuum, and free association, and the money-excrement connection, and the informative potential of dreams, and the Fehlleistung (a.k.a. “parapraxis”: Hofstadter and others have shown that this generally has to do with the basic architecture of the brain, not with an “Unconscious” whispering secret desires), the hydraulic theory of libido, and, well, pretty much the major blocks of the whole theory.(Yes, Freud also said some things that were true and important, such as that we do not always have cognitive access to our own deepest desires, but these tended to be things that were already widely known.)

These days it’s pretty well established, anywhere outside literature departments, that Freud had it right about a small number of things but wrong about the vast majority.(Psychology departments barely teach him these days—no, not because they are narrow-minded, just because they have better things to talk about.)In fact there’s strong evidence that he tampered with his own data. The “wolf man” was really a dog man. Schreber thought his dad a despot, not an “excellent father.” Little Hans was not cured by “discovering” his ostensible repressed wishes. Freud’s early patients never offered stories (made-up or otherwise) of sexual abuse: these were all invented by Freud, and then repeated by him—with no indication of their real source—in 1906, 1914, 1925, and 1933.

You might think that these mistakes and fibs are inconsequential, just another storm in the academic teacup.But an uncritical belief in the reliability of “recovered memories” (sometimes real, to be sure, but sometimes not) has very likely destroyed the reputations of some innocent people.It is also likely that trauma victims have been retraumatized by being encouraged, at the hands of well-meaning therapists, to go over the painful events again and again.In Switzerland, reportedly, doctors resisted treating heroin addicts with methadone, on the grounds that addiction is not physical but psychological.(Freud thought schizophrenia was psychological too; try treating that condition using only talk therapy!)Similarly, French therapists reportedly insisted that autism was caused by the mother's unconscious wish that her child did not exist.

It is actually dangerous, then, to keep some of these moribund views alive.And we’re the ones powering the life-support equipment.Could it be time to pull the plug?

Joshua Landy's picture
Joshua Landy is the Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French and Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University, where he co-directs the Initiative in Philosophy and Literature. His books include Philosophy as Fiction: Self, Deception, and Knowledge in Proust (Oxford, 2004), How to Do Things With Fictions (Oxford, 2012), and (as coeditor) The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age (Stanford, 2009).