Sunday, May 28, 2006

Freud on the couch

Dr Anthony Daniels The Times May 05, 2006 Times2
With Freud, it is not easy to say precisely what his achievement was; but a man who created, in Auden’s phrase, a climate of opinion the world over must have been out of the ordinary. The charges against him are many and serious. Far from having been the lone pioneer of the unconscious mind that he claimed to have been, he was a continuer and follower of the ideas of other men, whose influence he dishonestly failed to acknowledge. In short, Freud was a mythomaniac of gigantic proportions who had no hesitation in rewriting the past.
He was intellectually dishonest. He was well aware that his patients were not cured in the way that his published case histories claimed that they were (he fell out with his much more scrupulous colleague and coauthor, Josef Breuer, over this), and that therefore the claims he made for his method were false; hence all his theorising about the structure of the mind was based on no scientific evidence whatsoever. He claimed to be a natural scientist but in fact had little appreciation of scientific method and acted more as the leader of a cult or new religion than as a disinterested searcher after truth.
Whenever a disciple, such as Jung or Adler, disagreed with him, he did not so much refute his ideas as seek to ruin him by excommunication from the “true church” of psychoanalysis, which was a reaction to criticism more appropriate to a theocrat than to a real scientist. Freud wanted uncritical admiration and agreement from his followers, or rather disciples, not honest criticism, which he believed (or pretended to believe ) was the consequence of an unresolved Oedipus complex.
The influence of his ideas, albeit in vulgarised and simplified versions, has been culturally baleful and even catastrophic. For example, the notion that dysfunctional behaviour in adulthood has its origin in infantile or childhood traumas has led to a general belief in the existence of buried psychological treasure which, once unearthed and expressed in clear terms, automatically, in and of itself, causes the dysfunctional behaviour to cease, without any further conscious effort to control it on the patient’s part.
Freud thus strengthened a tendency for people to place the blame for their vices first on their parents and secondly on the doctors who failed to “cure” them of those vices. He was one of the most powerful modern destroyers of the concept of personal responsibility. His view that the repression of childhood sexuality caused, or could cause, neuroses or even psychoses resulted in the crude sexualisation of culture, for it implied that attempts to control oneself were not merely unhealthy but dangerous. Freud was thus the principal intellectual influence behind our current libertinism.
He also weakened the place of rational argument in human affairs. He made it possible for people always to argue that those with whom they disagreed were not so much mistaken about the evidence or logic of the matter as motivated by neuroses of which they were unaware. Thus Marx and Freud were the two patron saints of the ad hominem argument, which leads inevitably to intellectual laziness and dishonesty.
He was possessed of exceptional literary gifts. There can be no question that he was a great writer: to read him is to be beguiled by him. Just as with Sherlock Holmes (with whom the late Professor Michael Shepherd of the Maudsley Hospital once entertainingly compared him), one is inclined to overlook the faults of his logic and lacunae in the evidence for his conclusions because of the sheer brio involved. His imaginative leaps dazzle; his ability to find significance in small details — for example, slips of the tongue (and who among us does not use the concept of the Freudian slip?) — leave us feeling that we have been in the presence of a genius.
Freud was a deeply cultivated man, too. He was a good linguist and his knowledge of literature, especially Shakespeare (which he read and memorised), was vast. Highly intelligent men, such as the great Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, were deeply impressed by him; when Freud arrived in England as a refugee after the Anschluss in 1938, the Royal Society immediately conferred an exceptional honour on him.

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