Freudianism — Is It Science, and Is It True?
This is a follow-up to a recent article in which I discussed two different approaches to the phenomenon of synchronicity (meaningful coincidences): that of Carl Jung, who coined the term, and a Freudian one as advocated by the psychoanalyst Gibbs A. Williams. I was highly critical of the latter, so I thought that this would be a good opportunity to offer a general critique of Freud. I’ll begin by outlining some background information, the purpose of which is to show precisely how controversial a figure Freud is — how he is widely accepted by some, yet completely rejected by others.
In 2016 BBC television broadcasted a series of three programmes entitled Genius of the Modern World¹, one of the choices being Freud. This was obviously a significant compliment but, given that the other two were Marx and Nietzsche, one might question the judgment of either the BBC, the producer or the presenter, whoever made the choices. What they obviously had in common, apart from their dubious ideas, was that they were all extremely hostile to religion, which is not necessarily a qualification for the description of ‘genius’.
Another compliment was paid in 2010, when London’s Science Museum presented an exhibition entitled ‘Psychoanalysis: The Unconscious in Everyday Life’. This prompted a heated debate in New Scientist magazine as to whether this was appropriate, i.e should Psychoanalysis be presented in a positive light in a science museum? Some reactions were extremely negative, for example a letter from Allen Esterson: “It is clear from the publicity material, and presentations in association with the Institute of Psychoanalysis, that the exhibition is devoted to the promotion of Freud’s ideas and of psychoanalysis. It should not be a function of the Science Museum to take a blatantly partisan stance on a system of ideas and practice that has little in common with science, and which has been subjected to increasingly penetrating criticism since its inception”.
Philosopher Mario Bunge was given the opportunity to express his criticisms. He sarcastically congratulated the Science Museum because “exposure to pseudoscience greatly helps understand genuine science, just as learning about tyranny helps in understanding democracy”. It’s worth quoting him at some length, in order to appreciate the wide divergence of opinion on this issue. He went on to say: “Over the past 30 years, psychoanalysis has quietly been displaced in academia by scientific psychology. But it persists in popular culture as well as being a lucrative profession. It is the psychology of those who have not bothered to learn psychology, and the psychotherapy of choice for those who believe in the power of immaterial mind over body”.
His more specific criticism was that “psychoanalysis is a bogus science because its practitioners do not do scientific research. When the field turned 100, a group of psychoanalysts admitted this gap and endeavoured to fill it”. He mentions two studies which claimed successful outcomes in psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapy; he dismisses them because of the lack of control groups and because they did not entertain the possibility of placebo effects. He later claims that little is known about therapeutic efficacy because psychoanalysts do not perform double-blind clinical trials or follow-up studies.
Further criticisms were:
- “In 110 years, psychoanalysts have not set up a single lab. They do not participate in scientific congresses, do not submit their papers to scientific journals and are foreign to the scientific community — a marginality typical of pseudoscience”.
- “This does not mean their hypotheses have never been put to the test. True, they are so vague that they are hard to test and some of them are, by Freud’s own admission, irrefutable. Still, most of the testable ones have been soundly refuted. For example, most dreams have no sexual content. The Oedipus complex is a myth; boys do not hate their fathers because they would like to have sex with their mothers. The list goes on”.
He concludes: “Psychoanalysis is a pseudoscience. Its concepts are woolly and untestable yet are regarded as unassailable axioms. As a result of such dogmatism, psychoanalysis has remained basically stagnant for more than a century, in contrast with scientific psychology, which is thriving”.
This hostility prompted a critical response. Four weeks later a letter was published with 54 signatories, including “distinguished researchers in psychoanalysis in the science faculties of leading world universities, who have acquired major public grants and have published papers in high-impact, peer-reviewed scientific journals”. This letter complained about Bunge’s factual errors. It claimed that there had been various randomised controlled trials and systematic follow-up studies, and: “Contrary to Bunge’s assertion, studies included in Jonathan Shedler’s review of meta-analyses of therapeutic outcomes of psychoanalytic therapy did, of course, have control groups”. They conclude: “Readers expect contributors to their debates to be informed as to the facts, and scientific progress requires a respect for evidence. In this spirit we respectfully offer some facts to reassure those concerned by Bunge’s entertaining jibes”.
A further letter from Jim Hopkins (department of philosophy, King’s College London, and research department of clinical, educational and health psychology, University College London) was also heavily critical of Bunge, mentioning several examples of research into psychoanalytic topics. He concluded: “Such collaboration may, of course, contradict rather than confirm psychoanalytic hypotheses, but it is enough to falsify Bunge’s claim that psychoanalysis should be seen as pseudoscience. Or rather, it would be enough, if Bunge’s claim itself were subject to evidence, rather than abuse masquerading as philosophy”². (If what these responders said is true, it is hard to see how the somewhat bigoted Bunge could be so wrong about easily checkable facts.)
I’ll now move on to my own analysis and critique of Freud. I should make it clear that my target is not modern-day ‘Freudianism’; in the argument that I’ve just described, I would take the side of the psychoanalysts. (Bunge is clearly a fanatical materialist. In the field of psychology, fanatical materialism, which usually takes the form of complete denial of the existence of the psyche — sometimes even consciousness itself — can reach pathological proportions.) I also believe that my debating adversary, Gibbs A. Williams — a Freudian psychoanalyst — is doing very good work in the field of addiction.
So, to clarify my purpose, the simplest meaning of the term Psychoanalysis is merely ‘analysis of the psyche’. It is sometimes, however, used to refer exclusively to Freud’s system, which persuaded Jung to choose a new term — Analytical Psychology — for his own ideas. We can interpret both as an exploration of the unconscious, uncovering hidden material, gaining insights, all with therapeutic benefits. This is undoubtedly important and useful. As the letter mentioned above from the 54 professionals stated: “Psychoanalysis has developed greatly since Freud’s time, producing substantial research and productive connections to other branches of science. Many basic psychoanalytic propositions have been widely accepted, such as the formative impact of early childhood relationships on adult personality. Some of Freud’s specific propositions have been eclipsed by later formulations — as you would expect for bodies of knowledge evolving for more than a century, and certainly for any science. The basic idea of a dynamic unconscious that actively shapes conscious experience and relations with others has made productive connections with disciplines such as neuroscience”. It’s hard to argue with such a statement. What these professionals are saying is that Freud’s general principles are relevant, and I don’t disagree, but that Freudianism itself has moved on from his ‘specific propositions’.
Before moving on to my critique, I’d also like to make it clear that Freud undoubtedly had some good points: in general terms, his understanding of the role of the unconscious in human psychology and, more specifically, his most important original and useful contribution was possibly his identification of what are now known as Freudian slips, as described in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Also, his model of the psyche — ego, id, and superego — has something to be said for it, although it is limited and not the whole picture.
It seems, however, that he was very good at generalisations, but very poor on specific details. For example, he recognised the enormous importance of the unconscious, then developed some very bizarre theories in relation to it, for example, his obsession with sexuality as the driving force behind everything, the controversial Oedipus complex, and his dream theories.
I believe he considered The Interpretation of Dreams to be his most important work, even his masterpiece. He recognised that dreams are the “royal road to the unconscious”, but his central thesis about them is almost certainly false. He explained their symbolic nature by saying that they are wish fulfillments, that a censor is disguising repressed desires, instead of recognising that symbolism is the natural language of the unconscious. He therefore believed that dreams are intended to obscure the truth, failing to understand that they are intended to reveal the truth to the ego, even if their complex symbolic language can sometimes be very difficult to understand.
I’ll begin my critique with his sexual theory. Jung makes some revealing observations about Freud and his obsession with this, saying that he was emotionally involved with it “…to an extraordinary degree. When he spoke of it, his tone became urgent, almost anxious, and all signs of his normally critical and sceptical manner vanished. A strange, deeply moved expression came over his face, the cause of which I was at a loss to understand. I had a strong intuition that for him sexuality was a sort of numinosum”³. I assume that most psychoanalysts, and indeed psychotherapists in general, would recognise in that description symptoms of a neurotic disturbance, someone in need of some helpful Psychoanalysis.
Following a further meeting three years later, Jung says: “I can still recall vividly how Freud said to me, ‘My dear Jung, promise me never to abandon the sexual theory. That is the most essential thing of all. You see, we must make a dogma of it, an unshakable bulwark’… In some astonishment I asked him, ‘A bulwark — against what?’ To which he replied, ‘Against the black tide of mud’ — and here he hesitated for a moment, then added — ‘of occultism’. First of all, it was the words ‘bulwark’ and ‘dogma’ that alarmed me; for a dogma, that is to say, an undisputable confession of faith, is set up only when the aim is to suppress doubts once and for all. But that no longer has anything to do with scientific judgment; only with a personal power drive”.
One wonders exactly what Freud meant by this; his words could easily be interpreted to mean something like Black Magic. Jung, however, thought that by ‘occultism’ he merely meant “virtually everything that philosophy and religion, including the rising contemporary science of parapsychology, had learned about the psyche”. This would seem to mean anything that challenged scientific materialism, along the lines of our philosopher friend Mario Bunge above. He wanted to understand the psyche exclusively in extremely naturalistic terms (as we will discover below).
It is not immediately clear why Freud would think that interpreting all human activity in terms of sexuality was a defence of scientific materialism against occultism/religion. Jung, however, thought that “he wanted to teach… that, regarded from within, sexuality included spirituality and had an intrinsic meaning”. He also believed that Freud was not fighting against religion in general, but that he was also trying to repress his own religious inclinations, which again would be a personal problem, not something worthy of erecting a psychological system upon. He says: “Although I did not properly understand it then, I had observed in Freud the eruption of unconscious religious factors. Evidently he wanted my aid in erecting a barrier against these threatening unconscious contents”. Unsurprisingly, therefore, his sexual theory became his substitute for religion; for Freud it “was something to be religiously observed”. He had “now constructed a dogma; or rather, in the place of a jealous God whom he had lost, he had substituted another compelling image, that of sexuality”. “Here was Freud also trying to outdo the church and to canonise a theory”.
This insistence on his sexual theory seems to have led him into another major error, the idea that all forms of art are a sublimation of the sexual instinct, instead of recognising them for what they are, great achievements of the human spirit. He obviously wanted to reduce everything to the level of the id, basic biological instinct, rather than contemplate the possibility of ‘higher’ spiritual factors. As Jung says: “Above all, Freud’s attitude toward the spirit seemed to me highly questionable. Wherever, in a person or in a work of art, an expression of spirituality (in the intellectual, not the supernatural sense) came to light, he suspected it, and insinuated that it was repressed sexuality. Anything that could not be directly interpreted as sexuality he referred to as ‘psychosexuality’. I protested that this hypothesis, carried to its logical conclusion, would lead to an annihilating judgment upon culture. Culture would then appear as a mere farce, the morbid consequence of repressed sexuality. ‘Yes,’ he assented, ‘so it is, and that is just a curse of fate against which we are powerless to contend’ ”.
All this leads on to a consideration of Freud’s hostility to religion, and his accompanying devotion to extreme scientific materialism. He has variously described religion as a neurosis — thus a psychological illness — an infantile delusion, or wish-fulfillment. (See especially The Future of an Illusion. Also noteworthy are Totem and Taboo, Moses and Monotheism, and the final lecture in New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis.)
His primary influence in the field of religion was the atheistic philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, Freud actually saying that “I worship and admire this man the most”⁴ . In science, if Darwinism can be called that, he unsurprisingly admired Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley. More significantly, he idolised Hermann Helmholtz, an extreme materialist who propounded a mechanistic physiology.
In 1845, Helmholtz had founded the German Society of Physics, together with Ernst Brücke and Emil Du Bois-Reymond. Its aim was to make physics the foundation for all sciences. According to Helmholtz, “all natural phenomena must be brought back to the movement of material particles endowed with invariant driving forces, dependent only on their spatial location”⁵. Three years earlier the other two had “pledged a solemn oath to put into effect this truth [that]…No other forces than the common physical-chemical ones are active within the organism…the chemical-physical forces inherent in matter, reducible to the forces of attraction and repulsion”⁶. It is not surprising, therefore, that under the influence of Helmholtz Freud “set out to apply the laws of physics to the human nervous system”⁷.
We should note here the quasi-religious tone and their attempt to establish a dogma, reminiscent of Freud’s establishment of sexuality as a ‘religious’ dogma. One group of researchers calls this a “very strong physicalist scientific ideal, almost raised to a status of religious conviction”⁸. Also Freud’s biographer Ernest Jones comments: “‘Unity of science,’ ‘science,’ ‘physical forces’ were not merely directing ideas or hypotheses of scientific endeavor: they became almost objects of worship. They were more than methods of research — they became a Weltanschauung”⁹. Note also the assertion as ‘truth’ of something highly debatable, and the extreme materialism — the denial of anything psychological independent of matter.
For Helmholtz and therefore for Freud, psychology emerges from biology which emerges from the laws of physics. When in 1895 Freud published A Project for a Scientific Psychology, we can therefore confidently assume that by ‘scientific’ he really meant ‘purely materialistic’. So unrelenting was his approach that it led one biographer to call his book Freud, Biologist of the Mind, in which he even referred to Freud as a “crypto-biologist”¹⁰.
It is, of course, very difficult to understand how anything psychological could emerge from the interactions of particles and the laws of physics, especially an Oedipus complex, or dream symbolism, the pleasure principle and even the death instinct (thanatos). It seems, however, that Freud on the whole sought to avoid having to explain himself on this point, references to anatomy being largely absent from his writing after 1899.
Freud was not very keen on analysing himself. As Jung observed: “Freud never asked himself why he was compelled to talk continually of sex, why this idea had taken such possession of him”. Nor did it ever occur to him to analyse why he was so hostile to religion. He was far more concerned with maintaining his authority and his (I would argue false) ideas, rather than examine their truth or otherwise. However, the psychoanalyst Paul Vitz has done the job for him in Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious¹¹ and Faith of the Fatherless¹². In the first book his aim is to “show how Freud’s anti-religious beliefs and theories are to be understood as an expression of his own unconscious needs and traumatic childhood experiences” (P xii). In the second book he explains how atheists’ strong hostility to religion, including Christianity with its belief in a powerful father-figure, can be explained in terms of the personal life of those concerned — their fathers were either dead, weak, or abusive. Vitz calls this the Defective Father Hypothesis, and Freud is one of his principal examples. I have discussed Vitz’s work in detail in two earlier Medium articles (click here and here), so please refer to those if interested. Here I’ll just note that Freud’s major theory of the Oedipus complex can easily be explained by reference to events from his own childhood, something he failed to notice himself. (This is described in detail in the second of those two articles.)
Returning now to the BBC series mentioned at the beginning, the other two ‘geniuses’ — Marx and Nietzsche — were also mentioned by Vitz as examples of his Defective Father hypothesis. Freud and Nietzsche are named as two of his ‘intense atheists’, both of whom had traumatic childhoods in relation to their fathers, while he considers Marx to be a partial exception to his theory since his hostility to religion is not so fanatical.
Nietzsche fits perfectly Vitz’s Defective Father Hypothesis, in that his father died when he was four. It is probably also significant that his father was a Lutheran pastor, which would help to explain his extreme hostility to religion, especially Christianity, having been traumatised by the loss of his Christian father at an early age. Vitz says: “Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud are famous as formulators of powerful theories, but these atheist masters do not bother to argue whether religious beliefs are true or false. Instead, they ask what motives would lead people to hold such beliefs. As we have seen, this mode of inquiry is equally applicable to them and their ideas”¹³.
As I noted above, Freud was heavily influenced by Ludwig Feuerbach, saying that “I worship and admire this man the most”. Marx was equally impressed and influenced by him. Perhaps it won’t surprise you to discover, therefore, that Feuerbach is another of Vitz’s intense atheists with a defective father, a fiery and impulsive man known in the family as ‘Vesuvius’, who had an affair with the wife of one of his father’s friends. They lived “openly together in another town, and she bore a child (by him)”. He only returned to live with his legal family when his mistress died¹⁴. It is not hard to imagine that Feuerbach would have been furious with his father (and therefore by extension God the Father). This is an example of what in Freud’s theory is called displacement.
In the light of Vitz’s theory, it seems clear that Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud would all have benefited from Psychoanalysis, ironically in the case of the latter since he founded it. If they had done so, they might have discovered that their atheism was built on shaky foundations, i.e. their personal childhood traumas. They were called geniuses of the modern world by the BBC, when their only real qualification was that they were all fervent atheists and, as Vitz shows, psychologically disturbed atheists at that.
To summarise, Freud, despite making some important breakthroughs, was a deeply flawed figure who erected a psychological system and a worldview on some very shaky foundations. These had their source in his own unacknowledged psychological problems. Rather than analyse his own unconscious, he sought to assert his authority over his associates and students, trying to establish his highly debatable ideas as dogma. Unsurprisingly, they refused to accept this and deserted him, choosing to follow their own paths. The most famous example is Carl Jung, but also significant are Alfred Adler, Otto Rank, Wilhelm Reich and Roberto Assagioli.
To conclude, I’ll go off in a slightly different direction. Some of the people mentioned above started off with an attraction to spiritual, mystical, supernatural ideas before ‘converting’ to atheism and/or varying degrees of scientific materialism. Feuerbach had previously been a theologian, then a Hegelian — thus not hostile to spirituality — and only finally an atheistic philosopher. My debating adversary Gibbs Williams says that, following many meaningful coincidences (synchronicities), he “began as a passionate follower of Jung” and “plunged into the literature of the esoteric occult”, but then “more critical thinking” persuaded him to switch “to a more grounded Freudian point of view”.
The case of Freud is even more interesting. As a student he had been attracted to the philosophical theism of Franz Brentano whom at the time he considered a genius and a sharp dialectician. For a while Freud abandoned his materialism, although he returned to it soon afterwards¹⁵. Perhaps more significantly, according to his biographer Ernest Jones, “under the influence of Goethe Freud went through a brief period of (attraction to Schelling’s) Naturphilosophie, before becoming enthused by the competing physical physiology”. Helmholtz’s German Society of Physics had actually been founded in reaction to this Naturphilosophie, which “argued for a pantheist monism close to mysticism”, and “saw nature as a unique fundamental great organism, unified by general laws, by a single principle of causality, and without remainder”¹⁶. (This sounds close to how I see the world.)
This reminds me of two things, firstly Plato’s allegory of the cave — these people all seem to have had at least a glimpse of the light behind them, but then chose to remain chained, looking at shadows. And secondly, Wordsworth’s extraordinary poem Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. This is part of stanza 5: “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting… Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come, From God, who is our home. Heaven lies about us in our infancy! Shades of the prison-house begin to close upon the growing boy”.
By ‘prison-house’ Wordsworth obviously means the rational mind, which persuades us to forget our birthright. (In that context, it is interesting that in Plato’s allegory of the cave, he says “prisoners there since they were children”, not since birth.) Following that line of argument, Feuerbach, Williams, and Freud all seem to have had a temporary reconnection with their birthright, but then chose to let the prison-house entrap them. In any case, why should we assume that later ideas are necessarily better than earlier ones? Might early intuitions perhaps be more reliable?
For what it’s worth, I went the opposite way. I began by allowing my rational mind to control me, and was taken over at different times by Sartrian Existentialism, atheism, and socialism. It was then a series of powerful ‘spiritual’ experiences which persuaded me to change my mind.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
1. June 16/23/30–2016, repeated April 26, May 3/10–2017
2. New Scientist, issues 2780 and 2784, October 5th and October 27th 2010
3. For this and the following quotes from Jung, see Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Collins Fount 1982, chapter 5.
4. Hans Küng, Freud and the Problem of God, Yale University Press, 1990, p 3
5. Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, La Nouvelle alliance, Gallimard, Folio essais, 1979, p 148
6. Ernest Jones, The Life and Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 1, Basic Books. 1953, p 40. quoted in https://victorianweb.org/science/freud/helmholtz.html, although according to another source, referring to the same passage in Jones, Du Bois-Reymond reported that it was Helmholtz and Brücke who made this oath.
8. ‘The Epistemological Foundations of Freud’s Energetics Model’, Jessica Tran The, Pierre Magistretti, and François Ansermet,
9. Jones, as 6, p 43
10. Frank J. Sulloway, Basic Books, 1979, pp 3–8
11. William B. Eerdmans, 1993
12. Spence Publishing, 2000
13. ibid., p 143
14. ibid., p 43–44
15. source, Critique of Intelligent Design, Foster/Clark/York, Monthly Review Press, 2008, p 135, p 139
16. source, as footnote 8