Original sin and a messiah of unoriginalthought

Why Freud was Wrong
October 20, 1995

Anyone who has anything new to say about Freud is either a genius or has had access to new material. Although Richard Webster belongs to neither category, he gives an excellent synthesis of secondary sources on the evolution of Freud's ideas. According to Webster, Freud hardly had an original thought: the idea that hysteria was caused by psychological factors was borrowed from J. M. Charcot, abreaction from Josef Breuer, the progression though oral, anal and phallic stages from his friend Fleischl's bizarre theory that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, and so on. It was Freud's keenness to demonstrate that all hysteria originated from sexual trauma that led him to the concept of repression and to bullying his defenceless patients into reluctant and false confessions that they had been sexually abused, a technique that has been revived by modern-day therapists with disastrous consequences.

Freud either lied repeatedly or, in Webster's charitable view, was given to extraordinary self-deceit. He published a paper claiming that cocaine was a universal cure-all and was nonaddictive at a time when Fleischl was, as Freud well knew, in the throes of fighting his addiction to the drug. He lied about his "cures": when he misdiagnosed a brain tumour as hysteria in a woman who then died, he claimed to have cured the nonexistent neurosis. It is small wonder Freud was desperate to have his personal letters destroyed, for those that have survived have revealed many discreditable truths.

Oddly, Webster has no discussion of Freud's defence mechanisms, such as reaction formation or denial, which, shorn of the concept of the libido, are the only part of the Freudian edifice that is likely to survive. Nor does he discuss Freud's later meanderings, which in the gloom of old age led to his postulating the death instinct.

Webster amply demonstrates that there is no evidence for Freud's theory of the libido, but he does not cite the empirical evidence that refutes the theory, such as C. W. Valentine's study of his own children.

The second section of Webster's book is devoted to an analysis of Freud's savagery towards those who disagreed with him, particularly to his own followers, many of whom like Alfred Adler and Jung broke from him. Freud was exceptionally ambitious from an early age and he went to extreme lengths to defend the doctrine of psychoanalysis in the form in which he laid it down. He also sought to gain adherents, particularly welcoming Jung to the fold since, unlike all other psychoanalysts in those early days, Jung was a Gentile and might spread the faith beyond the Jewish community. Who can say whether Freud behaved in this way because he was naive enough to believe his own ideas or because he was merely in pursuit of his own glory? Up to this point, Webster tells a good story, even if it does not justify the media hype his book has received. But in his final section, in which he makes an attempt at originality, he goes wildly astray.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of psychoanalysis is the way in which this farrago of nonsense was enthusiastically accepted by intellectuals. Its very breadth may have been partly responsible. It was not merely a method of treating mental illness, it purported to explain myths, literature and all other forms of human endeavour. The artist who painted a forest was merely sublimating his desire to examine his mother's pubic hair. The theory could explain everything from belief in God to bedwetting. However false, it is the only interesting theory of personality ever put forward. Freud was a brilliant storyteller (in both senses of the word story) and the battles between the id, ego and superego have the compulsive fascination of the struggles between the Greek gods. Moreover, psychoanalysis freed the Bloomsburyites and others openly to indulge their sexual whims, much against Freud's own intentions. Finally, it gave the literary gigadibses an entertaining tool with which to dissect literature and to add bizarre elements to novels and biographies.

Instead of providing such mundane explanations, Webster claims that psychoanalysis fulfilled a religious need at a time when the importance of the church was receding. According to him, Freud was seen as a messiah in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Webster compares the erotic and scatological urges of infants to the doctrine of original sin and he likens the process of psychoanalysis to the confessional. This is all good knockabout fun, if somewhat farfetched, but Webster is in earnest: "Psychoanalysis is a religion and should be treated as such." Unfortunately he neither defines "religion" nor tells us how to treat it when we encounter it. Was behaviourism a religion? Skinner, with his promise of a Utopia, certainly exhibited some of Freud's characteristics. Webster goes on to preach that we need a "holistic" (oh, that magic word) theory of human nature. He attributes the ills of today's western society to its being too rational, ignoring the patent fact that it is the least brutal in history (with exceptions like Nazi Germany). In Britain we no longer cut off people's heads on a whim, nor employ slaves or chimney sweeps. Webster does not know when he is well off.

His denouement is an extraordinary non sequitur. He argues that his proposed grand theory of human nature should be based on history, literature and every other aspect of human life. He maintains that we should learn from Freud because he made the attempt, but a more logical conclusion, supported by the failure of other attempts, like those of Arnold Toynbee and Marx, is that no such theory is possible. Moreover, like so many others, Webster forgets that Freud tried to explain only irrational activities - dreams, mistakes and neurotic symptoms. He did so by positing ad hoc unconscious motives, which made these phenomena appear rational, but failed to explain the very aspect of human beings that separates us from the beasts - the ability to reason. Hence, he did not, pace Webster, present a comprehensive theory of human nature.

Webster argues that the theory he envisages should be constructed more through our feelings than by science. Feelings, however, are notoriously unreliable and are about the ends - whether good or bad - that we pursue. Science is about what is, not what ought to be: unfortunately human nature is what it is, not what we might like it to be and it can only be properly understood through rational thought. It is easy and fashionable to blame science for our current ills, but it is rarely noticed that its detractors, including Webster, have nothing to put in its place - or rather to complement it.

Stuart Sutherland is emeritus professor of experimental psychology, University of Sussex.

Why Freud was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis

Author - Richard Webster
ISBN - 0 00 255568 9
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £25.00
Pages - 673

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