Rediscovering the unconscious

Preface to the paperback edition of Why Freud Was Wrong


THE FIRST OCCURRENCE of the word ‘psychoanalysis’ was in 1896, the same year as the death of Freud’s father. It was then (or perhaps a year earlier, with the publication of Studies on Hysteria) that an obscure Austrian neurologist launched what was to become the most significant medical movement in the whole of human history. In the century which has passed since, psychoanalysis has been so deeply absorbed into our culture that we have almost forgotten that it was ever a medical movement in the first place. The sheer speed with which this happened has sometimes made it difficult to divine the reasons which lie behind the success of psychoanalysis. All too frequently this success has itself been interpreted as a measure of the rightness or the revolutionary profundity of Freud’s ideas. One of the aims of this book is to suggest that the reverse of this view may be nearer to the truth. I have tried above all to explain why a psychological system whose language and concepts may initially seem strange and unsettling has been experienced by so many people as familiar and reassuring.

Precisely because some people do find psychoanalytic ideas comforting, any work which criticises Freud is liable to provoke passionate resentment. This book is no exception. For although most of the responses to Why Freud Was Wrong on its publication in 1995 were warm and enthusiastic, a significant number were not. In some cases these followed a traditional pattern and Freud was defended with the kind of fierce zeal which has been customary in the psychoanalytic movement since its beginnings. Other responses, however, were themselves tempered by a degree of scepticism about psychoanalysis.

One of the arguments deployed by Freud’s more moderate defenders suggested that to portray psychoanalysis as a false science, as I do in this book, is to misunderstand its nature. According to this view the whole point of psychoanalysis is that it is not a science at all; it should be judged not as a contribution to our systematic knowledge of human nature but as a kind of poetry. Psychoanalytic theories, therefore, can never be rejected as ‘false’ and Freud, as the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips puts it, ‘can only be more or less inspiring, more or less interesting’ (The Observer, 17 September 1995). This view of Freud is certainly seductive. For by elegantly dissolving the truth-claims which are everywhere apparent in psychoanalysis it makes it possible to evade the task of evaluating Freud’s theories critically.

Those who seek to soften and relativise psychoanalysis in this way, however, can only do so by reinventing it. In reality it was Freud himself who triumphantly claimed the title of ‘scientist’ and who wrote that psychoanalysis ‘has put us in a position to establish psychology on foundations similar to those of any other science, such, for instance, as physics’ (SE26, p. 193-7). Freud’s belief that he was creating a genuine science remains crucial to any understanding of how psychoanalysis developed. For, as I have tried to show in the main body of this book, it was his relentless and reductive scientism which, harnessed to his need for fame, led him deeper and deeper into a labyrinth of error.

It is certainly true that Freud pointed to the poets as precursors of psychoanalysis. But the whole point of this claim was to suggest that psychoanalysis had succeeded in putting ‘poetic’ insights into human nature on an entirely different footing so that a set of mere intuitions had now been incorporated into a ‘hard’ scientific theory. If Freud had indeed succeeded in preserving these insights, the cultural status of psychoanalysis might be well-deserved in spite of its scientific waywardness. But one of the most damaging of all the effects which psychoanalysis has had upon our culture is to be found in the way in which Freud’s pre-eminence has helped to weaken or neutralise many of these genuine insights under the pretext of strengthening them.

To take what is perhaps the most significant example, the idea that human behaviour is influenced by impulses or feelings of which we sometimes remain unaware has long been a commonplace both of vernacular and of poetic psychology. It was in the seventeenth century that Pascal observed that ‘The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.’ It was in middle of the nineteenth century that the Goncourt brothers recorded this confession of Sainte-Beuve:

‘I have in my head here, or here,’ – he tapped his cranium – ‘a drawer, a pigeonhole, that I have always been afraid to look squarely into. All my work, all that I do, the spate of articles that I send forth – all that is explained by my desire not to know what is in that pigeon hole. I have stopped it up, plugged it with books, so as not to have the leisure to think about it, not to be free to come and go through it.’ (The Goncourt Journals, 1851-1870, Doubleday, 1953, p. 193.)

As a matter of cultural habit we now tend to categorise such observations as ‘Freudian’. Yet the view of unconscious motivation which has been expressed by countless writers, including Pascal and Sainte-Beuve, was incorporated into Freud’s ‘scientific’ psychology only after it had been both technicalised and medicalised. The wisdom contained in a diverse collection of fluid and metaphorical insights was thus displaced by the scientifically spurious notion that there was actually a mental entity called the Unconscious – a biologically circumscribed area of the mind with pathogenic power. Freud, as has long been recognised by scholars, did not invent the idea of ‘unconscious motivation’. He did, however, empty it of many of the subtleties it had formerly contained in order to make it into the basis of a theory of psychological medicine.

The belief that it was Freud who invented the idea of ‘projection’ is similarly ill-founded. The term itself was used in English by George Eliot in her translation of Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity in 1854. The concept of projection goes back much further, as may be seen from Shakespeare’s lines in King Lear:

                        Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand!

Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thy own back;

Thou hotly lusts to use her in that kind

For which thou whip’st her. (IV, vi, 157-60)

Once again, however, although Freud invoked the idea of projection, he also impoverished it by pinning it into his own mechanistic system. Again and again Freud strangled in false science the very ‘poetic’ insights which he had glimpsed in imaginative literature. The best place to look for these insights and to encounter them in their full richness and plenitude is not in psychoanalysis; it is in the works of the novelists, poets, and dramatists themselves. This is not to say that such insights cannot or should not be incorporated into systematic or scientific theories. It is simply to suggest that Freud’s own attempt to do this failed. When it comes to psychological insight the common wealth of our literary tradition remains richer by far than psychoanalysis, and this should be recognised more widely than it is.

Yet, partly because of the way in which he used the aura of science and of medicine to gain intellectual authority for his ideas, Freud sometimes seems to be regarded as the only possible source for any deep insight into human motivation. Psychoanalysis has become, in some quarters at least, a kind of dead letter box into which any profound insight into human nature whose origins are obscure, unknown or insufficiently ‘scientific’ is automatically sorted. By extension any critique of psychoanalysis which uses poetic, vernacular or empirically based insights in an attempt to analyse the behaviour of Freud himself (as I do in this book), is seen by some as self-contradictory or as a covert exercise in the very psychoanalysis it seeks to repudiate.

One of the inferences which may be drawn from such views is that many intellectuals (including some active supporters of Freud) have managed to remain surprisingly ill-acquainted with, or careless of, the distinctive details of Freud’s own theories. These still tend to be characterised not by their actual content so much as by the general impression that they deal with aspects of human nature which are dark, hidden or complex. Psychoanalysis comes in consequence to be seen not as the highly specific theory of mental functioning and sexual development which it is, but as an affirmation of human complexity.

Wherever this attitude prevails almost any account of human nature which partakes of the necessary complexity tends to be assimilated to psychoanalysis, and genuine psychological insights which have no connection with Freud come to be associated with him. As a result we tend to hide the real, historical Freud behind a mythical figure who rules over an empire of almost infinite psychological depth and complexity. The historical reality, as I have tried to show in this book, was very different. It is not simply that Freud lacked the extraordinary psychological insight he has conventionally been credited with. It is that, in a number of his most crucial formulations and case histories, he shows an almost complete lack of ordinary psychological insight and sensitivity.

The fact that some readers of the original edition of this book resisted its conclusions so fiercely perhaps illustrates how difficult it is for us to relinquish our intellectual heroes, and to face up to the reality of their relative intellectual poverty. But I suspect that it also illustrates something which is more poignant, and ultimately more tragic. It illustrates how difficult we sometimes find it to come to terms with the reality of our own relative intellectual and psychological wealth, and how much easier it is to attribute that ordinary wealth to those we have been conditioned to revere and to worship.


© Richard Webster, 2002


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