One of the few reasons for taking notice of Freud’s ideas and influence is the fact that they illustrate, yet again, how easy it is to do bad science and to pull the wool over the eyes of those not well-versed in the scientific method — think climate change in the present era.
Freud’s way of investigating, reporting, and thinking embodied much of what is antithetical to scientific methodology and to scientific probity.
Nothing is new (Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose), it has all been going on a long time, since before phrenology, 200 years). The extra-ordinary history and influence of phrenology has close parallels to Freud’s practices and ideas. The influence of magnetism and electricity in early medicine survives now in various updated guises, as does hypnosis. These threads share themes with the ideas of Pierre Teilhard in his 1950s book, “The Phenomenon of Man”. Teilhard was a Jesuit priest whose book enjoyed extensive influence. Sir Peter Medawar dissected and exposed Teilhard in an essay in which he asks : ‘how was it that people came to be taken in by Teilhard’s book, The Phenomenon of Man?’
Besides strongly recommending you read the whole of Medawar’s essay [above link] I must quote his answer to his own question of why people were taken in:
‘We must not underestimate the size of the market for works of this kind, for philosophy-fiction. Just as compulsory primary education created a market catered for by cheap dailies and weeklies, so the spread of secondary and latterly tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought.’
In other words, educational systems do not teach people how to think critically and analytically. That also applies to medical education, which explains why, although doctors are supposed to be scientifically educated, they not infrequently embrace pseudo-scientific explanations and systems of thought (like acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic etc).
Many doctors have been educated beyond their capacity to undertake critical analytical thought.
The Jesuitical pseudo-profundity of Teilhard’s opaque and tortuous text fooled many ‘intellectuals’. That should be no surprise, he was a Jesuit priest and the word ‘Jesuitical’ has not acquired its implications of dissembling, deceit, and sophistry without reason: he was even elected to the French Academy of Sciences. There are not many critics who can see through someone who is even half-competent in what I call ‘the art of intellectual obfuscation’ (see commentary on Bullshit).
The art of intellectual obfuscation is what Teilhard and Freud practised.
Although Freud is still widely known and prominent in the public psyche it is reassuring to note that in the academic ‘psychological’ literature he is universally ignored, e.g. see: An empirical analysis of trends in psychology
As with so many of these guru-worshipping semi-secret cult-like groups — which psychoanalysis certainly was — they developed all sorts of odd rituals and ideas and cultivated paranoia concerning other people’s supposed attempts to suppress their (well Freud’s, he was autocratic) wonderfully insightful breakthroughs.
Exaggerating the hostility that the rest of the world appears to exhibit towards your group is a sure way of increasing the groups’ cohesion and loyalty, especially if you are Jewish (almost all of them were) and sensitised to persecution. Freud’s secret committee of selected acolytes were presented with a Greek intaglio mounted in a gold ring. That was at best puerile, at worst, the groundwork for a cult. To my mind it is more reminiscent of children’s stories like ‘The Secret Seven’; did they cut their fingers and seal it with blood?* It is notable that some people closely associated with Freud at that time used the word ‘religion’ to describe what Freud was doing with his ideas and followers [2, 3].
*Interestingly, I note Shorvon  also used the “The Secret Seven” analogy in his review.
As with all religions, schisms rapidly followed.
Freud was not excommunicated from the scientific community — he manoeuvered himself into the position where he operated outside of the academic and scientific establishments of his day: he actively discouraged his adherents from having university appointments and little, if any, of his own work was overseen, peer reviewed, or part of the wider scientific discourse.
Freud turned his enterprise into a self-contained independent movement and from then on it became the story of the prophet, his followers (implicit faith in the prophet being a sine qua non), and his persecutors.
All such groups, if they are to endure, need a place of pilgrimage where the revered objects and texts are safeguarded and venerated. Freud’s disciples (it is difficult to find a more apt word to describe them) made sure that such a place was maintained. First of all, when he left Vienna around the beginning of the war, he recreated his rooms, down to the last detail, in his new residence in the UK. That in itself is a somewhat odd thing to do. After his death his daughter Anna inherited the Crown, as keeper of the archives; she ordained various of his papers were not to be made available till sundry future dates, evidently extending into the 22nd century, having duped the Library of congress to give them a safe haven (paid for by American tax payers!), but also keeping their contents hidden from public examination.
These papers are kept secret, except to the anointed few.
Freud himself burnt many of his patient case notes and other papers at various times — why would you do that? Well, he partly answered that question himself (see part 1) — to hide the truth about his dishonesty and facilitate the perpetuation of a false narrative.
Whatever one calls Freud’s enterprise, it was not science, nor was it even remotely related to science.
A journey into the literature on this subject will soon make you think that you are reading scholarly tracts or polemics on the origin and meaning of the sacred texts of one of the world’s many religions — I have already made the analogy of the parallel to the story of Mormonism. You will become lost in endless debates and schisms about meaning, interpretation and truth.
If you’re a scientist, forget about it: get a life! If you like fairy stories, good luck to you.
There was also a more dubious and darker side to his acolytes’ analytic eccentricities. Many of its early proponents, Wilhelm Reich to give but one of many possible examples, became variously obsessed with the occult, parapsychology, telepathy, and other beliefs near and beyond the fringes of reality and morality.
Reich finished up in jail in America for selling his machine that gathered sexual orgasm energy — it being illegal to sell orgasms across US state boundaries. Freud himself dabbled in those areas, but there at least his acolytes outshone him, providing a positive Catherine-wheel display of crazy ideas and bizarre thinking. Immanuel Velikovsky (1895-1979) was another such psychoanalyst who produced feeble thinking and irrational ideas in his best-selling book ‘Worlds in Collision’. A doctor/analyst writing about astronomy! that must be the ultimate in ultracrepidarianism. Velikovsky, like Teilhard, also took-in vast numbers of ‘educated’ people.
It seems that there is something in the mindset of those inclined to psychoanalytic ideas which predisposes to, or co-exists with, inherently woolly and faulty thinking and a tendency to take on irrational notions. That tendency frequently goes hand-in-hand with the manifest inability to either understand or implement the scientific method. My experience of analysts during my training in London in the 1970s was that I had never met such a bunch of neurotic and disordered people, most of whom were worse than the poor patients they were ‘treating’.
It is abundantly clear that Freud himself was a mixed up and disordered fellow, his most remarkable faculty was for self-deceit. He was certainly a heavy cocaine user for a long time: that alone would preclude him from being allowed to practice medicine in any civilised country.
Freud, in a letter to his fiancé, Martha Bernays (1884)
‘So, I gave my lecture yesterday. Despite the lack of preparation, I spoke quite well and without hesitation, which I ascribe to the cocaine I had taken before hand. I told about my discoveries in brain anatomy, all very difficult things that the audience certainly did not understand, but all that matters is that they get the impression that I understand it.’
I shall not even comment on the impression that creates for me. I will leave readers to draw their own conclusions.
Philosophers were early and perceptive recognizers of the fundamentally unscientific and illogical nature of Freud’s ideas e.g. Grünbaum, in ‘The Foundations of Psychoanalysis’.
A few additional comments from a modern researcher at UCL (Shaw, J) can be seen here:
The historiography surrounding the Freud story is showing a strong trend for greater discredit to both his character and his ideas — which are inextricably linked — as more and more material emerges . The somewhat deceitfully donated archives given to the American Library of Congress are not freely accessible, although they are paid for by the American taxpayer. They are actually controlled by agents appointed by the family, who fail to make material available to unfriendly biographers and researchers.
One (philosophy) commentator asked:
I know of no other example of a system of unjustified beliefs which has propagated itself so successfully as Freudian theory. How was it done? Alasdair MacIntyre (1976), 35
Well, Alasdair, there is one! The religion of Mormonism. That shares a similar timeline and technique — that of ignoring the fact that its founder was a jailed conman and psychopathic liar, and that the written evidence on which it is based was blatantly fraudulent, to any but the childishly credulous. I really do not need to say any more than that because I am confident my readers will be able to extend the analogy, which I do not have energy or inclination to do.
Freud could not stop himself smoking cigars (twenty a day, it is reported) even when he was having multiple operations for mouth cancer. There must have been many childish jokes circulating about the symbolism of his cigar, but thankfully they do not seem to have survived (except ‘sometimes a cigar is just a cigar’, which he probably never said, it sounds more like Groucho Marx). He also pressured, or bullied, his acolytes into smoking cigars.
On several recorded occasions, when getting emotional in arguments with Jung, he fainted, or pissed himself (lost control of his bladder): an odd thing for a mature adult to do. His household included his wife’s sister, whose bedroom, one account indicates, was accessed via Freud’s bedroom.
All his four sisters in Vienna stayed there, as did Freud, even after the Nazi army moved into town. Freud was persuaded to leave and got out by the skin of his teeth — it is puzzling that he appears to have made no effort to get his sisters out sooner. In the circumstances that can only be interpreted as exceedingly poor judgment and perspicacity.
Altogether, a picture of an odd, unpleasant, deluded, and dishonest man. If such a man tried to sell you insurance, or a second-hand car, you would be a fool indeed to buy it.
He was less than successful for the earlier part of his professional life . One failure happened after his sojourn in Paris to attend Charcot’s theatre of hysterical performing prostitutes — the stipend for which he engineered by less than straightforward representations to his university. The public were allowed into the Salpetriere hospital to watch Charcot’s demonstrations involving the hypnotism of scantily clad females. These were so popular that there was often a traffic jam of carriages in the streets around the hospital. The women were paid for their performances and I suspect for other things besides. The shows were a source of vicarious titillation — his lecture on this, on his return to Vienna, was widely ridiculed. It signalled the end of his university association.
It would be an inexcusable omission not to mention the fascinating story of Blanche Marie Wittman. She was Charcot’s long-time ‘Queen of hysterics’ who featured ‘déshabillé’ (in various stages of undress — competition for the ‘Folie Bergères’) in demonstrations — was she Charcot’s lover? Shorvon  concluded thus in his review. Blanche’s symptoms disappeared after Charcot’s death, and after many (16+) years in hospital she suddenly functioned well enough to become assistant and close friend to Madam Curie (of Nobel prize fame)! There is a famous painting of Charcot and Blanche, by Brouillet, a lithograph of which Freud had hanging above the couch in his consulting room. I suspect that, then and now, some would raise an eyebrow, or worse, if their wife/daughter was attending a therapist with such a suggestive/seductive painting so displayed immediately above the patient’s prone form on the couch.
Of the writings of this Charcot school of Parisian neurology, the BMJ commented it was ‘… somewhat unsavoury reading by the introduction of long pages of the obscene ravings of delirious hysterical girls and descriptions of events in their sexual history’.
A further air of eastern decadence was added by what Freud referred to as his ‘Smyrna’ rug, which covered the couch .
As a collector of antiques and curios — it has been claimed (yet more myth) that he was a discerning collector of rugs — he certainly did not know anything about Persian carpets, or geography. Smyrna (Izmir) is on the west coast of Turkey — the carpet is clearly Persian, a Qashqai, located 3,000 km to the east.
To have been attracted to, and taken in by, this theatrical charade tells us about Freud’s personality and his lack of critical acumen — perspicacity was clearly not his middle name. The lecture he gave on his return to the faculty in Vienna was a disaster. He was reprimanded by Professor Meynert, the department head. Indeed, he was such failure professionally — he was shunned even by many of the predominantly Jewish doctors in Vienna — that he may never have got anywhere if Breuer had not taken pity on him and saved him by referring to him young middle-class Jewish hysterics . At that time Freud’s practice was so slack that he was contemplating taking a job as a quack at a health spa .
He felt that he was pre-ordained to make his mark in the intellectual world — a problematic messianic streak. It is understandable that he would be keen, even desperate, to find some means of achieving notoriety, at any cost. That helps us to understand why he needed to be so disingenuous and fraudulent in his distorted reporting of cases, and in much of his other conduct.
In short, his revelations and beliefs (they were not scientific observations or theories) were built on inventions, distortions and deceits: did he deceive himself before he deceived others? How much was it grandiosity and paranoia fuelled by his cocaine use?
Remember, he had hoped that his early ideas about cocaine were to be his route to stardom.
Incidentally, his utter failure to recognize that was it was a local anaesthetic was another epic fail.
As Crews said damningly in the NYRB (8/12/2011):
‘Freud imagined himself a second Darwin, but he had more in common with Walter Mitty.’
There is a wealth of information concerning all sorts of aspects of his behaviour, odd and otherwise, in books, journals and on the Internet, so I shall not comment any further on it. These considerations do not constitute not ad hominem material, they relevant in so far as a critical informed judgement about the potential truth, objectivity, methodology and value of his work must necessarily include an assessment of the nature, background and probity of the man who wrote it, i.e. its trustworthiness and reliability.
That is precisely because there is no experimental basis for his ideas, there is no data that we can go back and re-analyze, there is not even a verified body of peer reviewed case histories to check, partly because he destroyed many of his records, and partly because we have no other corroborating account of these cases (but we do have extensive material indicating clearly that they were they were highly inaccurate). It is like the golden tablets of the book of Mormon, only we don’t even have the statement of gullible witnesses who claim to of seen them before they mysteriously vanished, we have only Freud’s word.
Therefore, Freud’s character, probity, and behaviour are central to any critical analysis of his ideas.
Without such an assessment one cannot decide if it is worthwhile investing the effort of the thousands of hours that would be needed to read and study his prolix and convoluted material — intellectual obfuscation and bloviation on an epic scale.
One cannot help but suppose that psychoanalytic practitioners and Freud’s remaining acolytes are experiencing the sunk cost fallacy — how difficult to admit error after investing so greatly in following his teachings. It is as rare as the ardently religious becoming atheists. And it is a rare individual who can recognize such errors.
On measures of probity Freud fails to impress any but the most gullible and credulous. We have only his word, and the ashes of the case histories that he burnt, there is no independent or objective evidence. He is no different from the prophet who claims to have heard the word of God, or the Mormons who have lost the golden tablets, whose existence was only ever attested to by a convicted conman.
If he had lived in the modern era he would have been recognised as a self-aggrandising plagiarist, fraud, and liar: to be fair, that is how many of his contemporaries regarded him; their opinions are just less prominently recorded by history.
As J K Galbraith stated:
If all else fails, immortality can always be assured by spectacular error.
He was charging Sw.Fr. 40 an hour in the 1930s — he certainly cannot be accused of underestimating his own worth. Five sessions a week, for between 4 to 6 months — that equates to something like 150 to 200,000 American dollars for a course of treatment.
Finally, remember that medical science did not divorce Freud, he purposefully and calculatingly divorced himself from the educational institutions of science and medicine and set up his own institutions that he could control, both intellectually, socially, and financially. Disagree even slightly with Freud and you were finished, as Oberndorf discovered (Sulloway , p 270).
I will close by quoting Freud himself (letter to Wilhelm Fliess, Feb. 1, 1900), in what may have been a fleeting moment of insight.
‘I am actually not at all a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, not a thinker. I am by temperament nothing but a conquistador–an adventurer, if you want it translated–with all the curiosity, daring, and tenacity characteristic of a man of this sort’.
1. Medawar, P., The Phenomenon of Man in “The strange Case of the spotted mice”. 1st published in New York Review of Books Jan 23 17, 1969.
2. Shorter, E., A history of psychiatry: from the era of the asylum to the age of Prozac. 1997: Wiley.
3. Sulloway, F.J., Reassessing Freud’s case histories. Isis, 1991. 82: p. 245-275
4. Shorvon, S., Fashion and cult in neuroscience—the case of hysteria. Brain, 2007. 130: p. 3342-3348.
6. Warner, M., Freud’s Couch: A Case History. Raritan: A Quarterly Review, 2011. 31(2): p. http://www.freud.org.uk/file-uploads/files/file/Marina%20Warner%20in%20RARITAN.pdf.
7. Masson, J.M., The complete letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess. Cambridge: Harvard U. P., 1985: p. 378.
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