Critique and Defense of Psychoanalysis
Harold Bloom called Freud “The central imagination of our age”. That psychoanalysis is not a scientific theory in the strict, rigorous sense of the word has long been established.
“I am actually not a man of science at all. . . . I am nothing but a conquistador by temperament, an adventurer.”
(Sigmund Freud, letter to Fleiss, 1900)
“If you bring forth that which is in you, that which you bring forth will be your salvation”.
(The Gospel of Thomas)
“No, our science is no illusion. But an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give us we cannot get elsewhere.”
(Sigmund Freud, “The Future of an Illusion”)
Harold Bloom called Freud “The central imagination of our age”. That psychoanalysis is not a scientific theory in the strict, rigorous sense of the word has long been established. Yet, most criticisms of Freud’s work (by the likes of Karl Popper, Adolf Grunbaum, Havelock Ellis, Malcolm Macmillan, and Frederick Crews) pertain to his – long-debunked – scientific pretensions.
Today it is widely accepted that psychoanalysis – though some of its tenets are testable and, indeed, have been experimentally tested and invariably found to be false or uncorroborated – is a system of ideas. It is a cultural construct, and a (suggested) deconstruction of the human mind. Despite aspirations to the contrary, psychoanalysis is not – and never has been – a value-neutral physics or dynamics of the psyche.
Freud also stands accused of generalizing his own perversions and of reinterpreting his patients’ accounts of their memories to fit his preconceived notions of the unconscious . The practice of psychoanalysis as a therapy has been castigated as a crude form of brainwashing within cult-like settings.
Feminists criticize Freud for casting women in the role of “defective” (naturally castrated and inferior) men. Scholars of culture expose the Victorian and middle-class roots of his theories about suppressed sexuality. Historians deride and decry his stifling authoritarianism and frequent and expedient conceptual reversals.
Freud himself would have attributed many of these diatribes to the defense mechanisms of his critics. Projection, resistance, and displacement do seem to be playing a prominent role. Psychologists are taunted by the lack of rigor of their profession, by its literary and artistic qualities, by the dearth of empirical support for its assertions and fundaments, by the ambiguity of its terminology and ontology, by the derision of “proper” scientists in the “hard” disciplines, and by the limitations imposed by their experimental subjects (humans). These are precisely the shortcomings that they attribute to psychoanalysis.
Indeed, psychological narratives – psychoanalysis first and foremost – are not “scientific theories” by any stretch of this much-bandied label. They are also unlikely to ever become ones. Instead – like myths, religions, and ideologies – they are organizing principles.
Psychological “theories” do not explain the world. At best, they describe reality and give it “true”, emotionally-resonant, heuristic and hermeneutic meaning. They are less concerned with predictive feats than with “healing” – the restoration of harmony among people and inside them.
Therapies – the practical applications of psychological “theories” – are more concerned with function, order, form, and ritual than with essence and replicable performance. The interaction between patient and therapist is a microcosm of society, an encapsulation and reification of all other forms of social intercourse. Granted, it is more structured and relies on a body of knowledge gleaned from millions of similar encounters. Still, the therapeutic process is nothing more than an insightful and informed dialog whose usefulness is well-attested to.
Both psychological and scientific theories are creatures of their times, children of the civilizations and societies in which they were conceived, context-dependent and culture-bound. As such, their validity and longevity are always suspect. Both hard-edged scientists and thinkers in the “softer” disciplines are influenced by contemporary values, mores, events, and interpellations.
The difference between “proper” theories of dynamics and psychodynamic theories is that the former asymptotically aspire to an objective “truth” “out there” – while the latter emerge and emanate from a kernel of inner, introspective, truth that is immediately familiar and is the bedrock of their speculations. Scientific theories – as opposed to psychological “theories” – need, therefore, to be tested, falsified, and modified because their truth is not self-contained.
Still, psychoanalysis was, when elaborated, a Kuhnian paradigm shift. It broke with the past completely and dramatically. It generated an inordinate amount of new, unsolved, problems. It suggested new methodological procedures for gathering empirical evidence (research strategies). It was based on observations (however scant and biased). In other words, it was experimental in nature, not merely theoretical. It provided a framework of reference, a conceptual sphere within which new ideas developed.
That it failed to generate a wealth of testable hypotheses and to account for discoveries in neurology does not detract from its importance. Both relativity theories were and, today, string theories are, in exactly the same position in relation to their subject matter, physics.
In 1963, Karl Jaspers made an important distinction between the scientific activities of Erklaren and Verstehen. Erklaren is about finding pairs of causes and effects. Verstehen is about grasping connections between events, sometimes intuitively and non-causally. Psychoanalysis is about Verstehen, not about Erklaren. It is a hypothetico-deductive method for gleaning events in a person’s life and generating insights regarding their connection to his current state of mind and functioning.
So, is psychoanalysis a science, pseudo-science, or sui generis?
Psychoanalysis is a field of study, not a theory. It is replete with neologisms and formalism but, like Quantum Mechanics, it has many incompatible interpretations. It is, therefore, equivocal and self-contained (recursive). Psychoanalysis dictates which of its hypotheses are testable and what constitutes its own falsification. In other words, it is a meta-theory: a theory about generating theories in psychology.
Moreover, psychoanalysis the theory is often confused with psychoanalysis the therapy. Conclusively proving that the therapy works does not establish the veridicality, the historicity, or even the usefulness of the conceptual edifice of the theory. Furthermore, therapeutic techniques evolve far more quickly and substantially than the theories that ostensibly yield them. They are self-modifying “moving targets” – not rigid and replicable procedures and rituals.
Another obstacle in trying to establish the scientific value of psychoanalysis is its ambiguity. It is unclear, for instance, what in psychoanalysis qualify as causes – and what as their effects.
Consider the critical construct of the unconscious. Is it the reason for – does it cause – our behavior, conscious thoughts, and emotions? Does it provide them with a “ratio” (explanation)? Or are they mere symptoms of inexorable underlying processes? Even these basic questions receive no “dynamic” or “physical” treatment in classic (Freudian) psychoanalytic theory. So much for its pretensions to be a scientific endeavor.
Psychoanalysis is circumstantial and supported by epistemic accounts, starting with the master himself. It appeals to one’s common sense and previous experience. Its statements are of these forms: “given X, Y, and Z reported by the patient – doesn’t it stand to (everyday) reason that A caused X?” or “We know that B causes M, that M is very similar to X, and that B is very similar to A. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that A causes X?”.
In therapy, the patient later confirms these insights by feeling that they are “right” and “correct”, that they are epiphanous and revelatory, that they possess retrodictive and predictive powers, and by reporting his reactions to the therapist-interpreter. This acclamation seals the narrative’s probative value as a basic (not to say primitive) form of explanation which provides a time frame, a coincident pattern, and sets of teleological aims, ideas and values.
Juan Rivera is right that Freud’s claims about infantile life cannot be proven, not even with a Gedankenexperimental movie camera, as Robert Vaelder suggested. It is equally true that the theory’s etiological claims are epidemiologically untestable, as Grunbaum repeatedly says. But these failures miss the point and aim of psychoanalysis: to provide an organizing and comprehensive, non-tendentious, and persuasive narrative of human psychological development.
Should such a narrative be testable and falsifiable or else discarded (as the Logical Positivists insist)?
Depends if we wish to treat it as science or as an art form. This is the circularity of the arguments against psychoanalysis. If Freud’s work is considered to be the modern equivalent of myth, religion, or literature – it need not be tested to be considered “true” in the deepest sense of the word. After all, how much of the science of the 19th century has survived to this day anyhow?