What is there about Freud's vision that has made his monumental work a limiting factor rather than a scaffolding on which others can stand? Put less metaphorically, why has psychoanalysis not become a cumulative discipline? I believe the answer to this question will tell us something about where psychoanalysis will survive. The answer is that psychoanalysis, both as a theory and as a practice, is an art form that belongs to the humanities and not to the natural sciences. It is closer to literature than to science and therefore-although it may be a hermeneutic discipline-is not a cumulative discipline. When one human being analyzes another, the result is not an objective scientific explanation that can be separated from the subjectivity of the analyst. Unable to move toward the objectivity of science, we are retreating into our own subjectivity. Looking back at what we now know about Freud, I think the case can easily be made that Freud was more an artist/subjectivist/philosopher than a physician/objectivist/scientist. Ernest Jones in his biography created the legend that Freud, upon graduating from the gymnasium, decided to become a medical scientist because he read a famous essay by Goethe on nature. If Freud was inspired by Goethe's essay, then I suggest it was because he identified with the author, not the medical and scientific content, of the essay.
During the years when Freud was working on The Interpretation of Dreams, he confided to his friend William Fleiss, "As a young man my only longing was for philosophical knowledge, and now that I am changing over from medicine to psychology I am in the process of fulfilling this wish." By the end of his life he felt comfortable enough to inform his readers, "My self knowledge tells me I have never really been a doctor in the proper sense."
If not a "proper" doctor, did Freud consider himself a "medical scientist"? In the late 1890s he wrote, "It still strikes me, myself, as strange that the case histories I write should read like short stories and that, as one might say, they lack the serious stamp of science."
Freud, in fact, had enormous literary talent and when it seemed clear that he would never win the Nobel Prize for medicine, Thomas Mann, along with other literary greats, actually encouraged the nomination of Freud for the Nobel Prize in literature. He was awarded the Goethe prize. Even those like myself who cannot read Freud's German are awed by the power of his rhetoric in translation.
Here is a line from one of his most influential theoretical papers, "Two Principles of Mental Functioning." Describing the momentous significance of the reality principle replacing the pleasure principle, he writes, "The doctrine of reward in the afterlife for the voluntary or enforced renunciation of earthly pleasures is nothing other than a mythical projection of this revolution in the mind." A marvelous subjective speculation-I find it persuasive, but is it empirical? Is it based on objective data? In Civilization and its Discontents, we find: "The more virtuous a man is, the more severe and distrustful is his conscience, so that ultimately it is precisely those people who carried saintliness furthest who reproach themselves with the worst sinfulness." And a final example: "Eternal wisdom, in the garb of primitive myth, bids the old man renounce love, choose death, and make friends with the necessity of dying." The quote is from a piece of Freud's literary criticism; he is discussing Shakespeare's King Lear.
This literary, artistic side of Freud is by all accounts even more prominent in his original German; however, Ernest Jones and the official British translators of Freud's work were particularly determined to present Freud to the readers of English as an empirical scientist. William James, who had gone to hear Freud speak at Clark University, declared him a man of fixed ideas. And Jones worried that Freud might be written off as unscientific and speculative by the English-speaking world. Jones actually convinced Freud to keep some of his theories quiet, at least for a while, among them Freud's belief in ESP and his conviction that the Earl of Oxford had written the plays of Shakespeare.
Jones had good reason to worry on other grounds. I quote Freud's famous letter of February 1900 to Fleiss: "I am not really a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, and not a thinker. I am nothing but by temperament a conquistador-an adventurer if you want to translate the word-with the curiosity, the boldness, and the tenacity that belongs to that type of being. Such people are apt to be treasured if they succeed, if they have discovered something; otherwise they are thrown aside. And that is not altogether unjust."
Freud in a much later conversation with Jones allegedly said that, "As a young man I felt a strong attraction toward speculation and ruthlessly checked it." This "ruthless" suppression of speculation is seldom to be found in Freud's collected works. Fifteen years ago I spent most of a year reinterpreting Freud's first dream. This endeavor required me to read carefully all of the available biographical material and the letters of Freud, together with all of his published work in the early years of 1895 and 1896. What one discovers is that Freud had a new hypothesis every day. It is astonishing to see how little evidence he needed; a single patient hour was enough to launch a whole new theory of mental illness.
Freud was no more a scientist than Marx. I say this not in disrespect; both men were geniuses. Freud's Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality is a work of genius that one can still read with amazement. Freud considered it the core of psychoanalysis. These essays provided the twentieth century with a revolutionary reconception of the human condition: psychosexual development and the Oedipus complex. The work is in some sense empirical, and yet Freud provides almost no evidence and no direct observational data for his sweeping conclusions. The unspecified and perhaps unrecognized premise of the work is that the author deals here with the universals of the human condition and every reader, like Freud, has the necessary empirical evidence available and need only be willing to consider his or her own subjective experiences. Although the method is not recognizable as science, I know of no other work in psychiatry or psychology so powerful, so lucid, and so immediately convincing. Inventing two technical terms, sexual aim and sexual object, Freud deconstructs the centuries-old conception of the sexual instinct and in the process illuminates the related significance of sexual foreplay and perversions. It was Freud who brought the sexual outcasts back into the family of humanity and showed us the common themes in all the complicated dances of our erotic life. These ideas for me unequivocally establish Freud's revolutionary genius, but I find no scientific method or science in this great work. Indeed, these essays were too convincing. They are filled with what we now recognize as horrifying mistakes (fixed ideas) about female sexuality that were taken as scientific truth by psychoanalysts. As a result we made several generations of educated women who had satisfying clitoral orgasms feel sexually inadequate and misled them about the possibilities of sexual gratification.
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