I don't dislike Freud because he was pessimistic. I dislike him because he was so dogmatic, and so wrong
Once, a decade ago, when I was about 23, I took a week’s holiday from my job reporting on the German mortgage bond market, and spent the whole week reading Sigmund Freud in the British Library. I wanted to write a book, with a chapter about post traumatic stress disorder, and I figured to understand it, I had better study at the feet of the master. I must have read about six of his books that week.
My god what a depressing week it was. What a terrible holiday. I felt far worse at the end of the week than I did at the beginning. Freud wrote extremely well, there was no denying it, but what a depressing vision of human existence he put forward: we are vicious creatures, trapped in our unconscious Oedipal desires, fated to be ignorant of our selves, and our only hope for some release from anxiety and melancholia is to see a psychoanalyst, every day, for years. At the end of this long journey into the unconscious, led by the Virgil of the psychoanalyst, we won’t be happy, exactly, but we may perhaps be slightly less miserable.
When Freud ruled psychology, from the 1920s until perhaps the 1950s, psychology was bleak. If you’d gone to a psychoanalysis conference in those days, it would have been full of seminars on masochism, sadism, hysteria, melancholy, incest, the death instinct, coprophilia, necrophilia, as each psychoanalyst outdid themselves to delve deeper into the demonic recesses of the Id. Now, by contrast, when CBT and Positive Psychology is king, the conferences are full of chipper presentations on gratitude journals, meditation, flow and positive emotion. Not a necrophiliac in sight.
Freud is back on our screens this month, in David Cronenberg's new film, A Dangerous Method, where he is depicted by Viggo Mortensen (right). Freud still enjoys a following among cultural and literary types, but he's still rather in the wilderness of modern psychology. Writing in the latest issue of Prospect, John Gray argues that the reason Sigmund Freud is so out of fashion today is his ‘heroic refusal to flatter mankind’. Gray writes:
In a well-known passage at the end of Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Freud declared: “I have not the courage to rise up before my fellow-men as a prophet, and I bow to their reproach that I can offer them no consolation…” What is most in demand at the start of the 21st century, in contrast, is consolation and nothing else. What Freud offers is a way of thinking in which the experience of being human can be seen to be more intractably difficult, and at the same time more interesting and worthwhile, than anything imagined in the cheap little gospels of progress and self-improvement that are being hawked today.
It’s true that Positive Psychology has swung far from the dark Teutonic pessimism of Freud, it has over-promised, over-hyped, and become obsessed with the light, the positive, the happy, and ended up demonising other aspects of human experience. Even some Positive Psychologists admit that. I think Gray has a point here. .
But this is not, I think, why Freud is out of fashion today. Not all contemporary psychology is relentlessly optimistic. Daniel Kahneman, for example, explores in his new book, Thinking: Fast and Slow, how humans are endlessly deceived by the cognitive biases in their mind, and how, no matter how rational we try to be, we are perhaps fated to remain endlessly deceived. That is Freudian pessimism for the modern age - but grounded on more solid experimental science than Freud ever bothered to use.
No, the reason Freud is out of fashion today is because he over-hyped his ‘science’. I can accept his pessimistic philosophy. I can accept his view that humans are weak, irrational, violent creatures who can’t ever know themselves. I don’t agree with it - but I can live with it. What I object to in Freud is that he then says: only psychoanalysts can access the unconscious, only we, the priestly caste of analysts, can know its secrets, and only we can mitigate your neuroses, for a colossal fee. That’s what I have a problem with.
Gray says that Freud ‘began’ the idea of the talking cure, which ‘had the effect of promoting the idea that psychological conflict can be overcome by the sufferer gaining insight into the early experiences from which it may have originated’. Freud didn’t begin the ‘talking cure’. That goes back to Socrates, who developed the idea that through dialogue and self-examination, we can learn to ‘take care of our psyches’. Socrates taught us that we could all learn to be ‘doctors to ourselves’, as Cicero put it. He put forward an optimistic vision of humans’ capacity to know themselves and change themselves.
Freud, by contrast, took the power to know yourself and change yourself out of the hands of the individual, and gave it to his own self-appointed caste of experts. You can’t know yourself, he told humanity, only we can know you. And you have to pay us for this knowledge. Then he developed a remarkably rigid and dogmatic map of the unconscious, according to which what causes neuroses is almost always the Oedipal desire for a parent. He never put these theories to any kind of empirical test - indeed, he twisted the facts to fit his theory. And he then insisted all of humanity fit into his map. And if they didn’t, they were ‘in denial’, and needed several more years of psychoanalysis, until they confessed their guilt.
Gray argues that Freud put forward a sort of ‘Stoic ethics’, a Stoicism for the modern world, but without the Stoics’ optimistic idea of the Logos. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Stoic student learns how to know themselves, how to change themselves. And, importantly, they learn how to take responsibility for their thoughts and beliefs here in the present, rather than blaming it on the past, on their parents, on their environment. Find me one mention in Stoicism of how our parents are to blame for our emotional problems. Stoic therapy focuses on the present, on our thoughts and beliefs here and now. ‘What is the point of dragging up suffering from the past?’ Seneca asked. ‘Of making yourself unhappy now because you were unhappy then?’
Much closer to the Socratic and Stoic project is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which evolved directly from Stoicism, and which shares their optimistic idea that we can know ourselves, examine our beliefs, change ourselves and become wiser and better adapted people. And we can do this ourselves. We don’t need to pay an analyst caste several thousand pounds for several years’ therapy. We don’t need to sign up to Freud’s bizarre and untested map of the unconscious, and confess our guilt.
I have no problems with Freud’s pessimistic philosophy of human existence. What I object to is that he claimed this philosophy was a science, and then insisted that only by accepting this science and paying through the nose for psychoanalysis can we free ourselves from neuroses. His science was terrible - he lied, he falsified, he failed to test his outlandish conclusions, he ostracised any followers who dared to question him (please read Richard Webster's Why Freud Was Wrong if you think I'm exaggerating). He turned his philosophy into a scientific cult, and insisted that we kneel to the cult leaders and confess our sins.
And it didn’t work. All that money, all those years and years of therapy, all that endless diving into the past and finding that moment Mummy was mean to you...and there is still no scientific evidence that psychoanalysis works. But it did turn into a huge industry, which is still lamely insisting the only way to personal redemption is to pay them several thousand pounds for several years until we come out of denial. Well, I'm sorry, I'm not buying it.
I am surprised that Gray, who is usually so good at seeing the cultish irrationalism of modern theories, should defend him