Although some of his theories are still hotly debated, Sigmund Freud, (1856–1939) is widely regarded as a trailblazer in the realm of psychiatry and psychology. The Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist, who was allegedly the first to offer a comprehensive explanation of how human behavior is determined by the conscious and unconscious forces, is regarded as the founder of psychoanalysis.
Along with the “talk therapy” that remains the staple of psychiatric treatment to this day, Freud popularized, among other notions, such concepts as the psychosexual stages of development; Oedipus complex; transference; dream symbolism; Ego, Id, and Super-Ego; and the one that has become part of the colloquial English more than any other psychiatric term—the Freudian slip.
Frank Cioffi (1928-2012) was honorary professor of philosophy at the University of Kent at Canterbury. He was born and raised in New York City, but received his university education in England. He began his academic career as a social psychologist. He is the author of Freud and the Question of Pseudoscience (1998), and Wittgenstein on Freud and Frazer (1998).
Simply Charly: You are often cited as one of the most trenchant critics of Freud and psychoanalysis. Yet, you’ve been trained as an analytic philosopher—a field not customarily associated with this area of pursuit. How did you get mixed up in this business of Freud criticism?
Frank Cioffi: I read Philosophy and Psychology at Oxford. All papers were compulsory, and one of these was Abnormal Psychology in which Freud largely figured. His achievement was taken for granted. When I later came to read his case histories and his early papers with some care, I was astonished at how uncritical my tutors had been. And this had implications for my view of the value of analytic philosophy. Like most products of Oxford analytic philosophy, I thought that in acquainting my students with the problem of induction; the distinction between necessary and contingent propositions; the refutation of skepticism; etc. etc., I would have produced minds nurtured in astringency and adept in the detection of sophistry and tendentiousness. It was thus a great blow to this view when I noticed that the most abjectly appreciative of Freud admirers were themselves distinguished analytic philosophers: Richard Wollheim, Stuart Hampshire, John Hospers.
This is what Hospers wrote of “the remarkable predictive powers” of psychoanalysis: “on the basis of your past history and general laws, the psychoanalyst can not only explain why you have the dreams that you do, why you feel aggression toward this person and affection toward the other, and why you feel guilt in the situation you do, but also predict what conflicts will arise, what course therapy will take, and whether it will achieve certain desired results.” No one now believes this. How did the analytically minded ever come to credit it? Tributes like that of Hospers (and of Wollheim in his Freud book) led me to suspend my exorbitant claims for analytic philosophy and to seek the solution to the puzzle of how blatantly unwarranted claims to knowledge came to be so readily accepted in ideological and affective forces rather than lack of analytic acumen.
SC: You have stated that one of the mistakes you made early in your analysis of Freud’s theories was your over-dependence on the use of Karl Popper’s notion of testability. Can you explain why?
FC: My interest in testability was much narrower than Popper’s. I was only concerned with its adequacy at capturing what critics have in mind when they describe a body of claims as not merely mistaken but pseudo-scientific. (Though it would have been better from the outset if critics had avoided the term “pseudo-scientific” and confined themselves to humanistic terms of disapprobation such as tendentious, spurious, fraudulent. Etc. We would then have been spared the sophistical apologetic of Thomas Nagel and others.)
The usefulness of Popper’s notion of testability is confined to pretensions to law-like knowledge. It is noteworthy that when Popper wishes to illustrate the concept of testability he uses the law-like example “All swans are white” and its relation to a black swan. This is natural since Popper’s interest is science and laws are the staples of scientific discourse. The question he does not address is how we are to assess statements such as “a rainbow-colored swan was observed at such and such a time and place.” And it is statements like these, which are a staple of psychoanalytic discourse. Though law-like psychoanalytic claims also abound, sophistical apologists like Nagel are happy to abandon them and confine their case for Freud’s genius to his remarkable particular “rainbow-coloured” swan-like discoveries.
It is worth remarking that even when dealing with law-like claims, it is not the simple rejection of falsification that Popper objects to, but the theorist treating his ability to explain away an apparent falsifier as constituting further evidence in favor of the claim at issue. It is quite common for a theorist whose theory has been declared false to exert all his ingenuity in explaining away the apparent discrepancy. This is too common a practice to be treated as a criterion of pseudo-science. But Popper does not confine himself to this criterion. What he also objects to is what he calls “the stream of confirmations.” Consider his Adler anecdote: He says that when he told Adler of a case, which seemed to falsify a theory of Alder’s, Adler explained it away. When Popper asked Adler how he knew his account was correct rather than his critics’, Adler replied “From my thousand-fold experience.” Popper’s comment was: “And now I suppose you think your experience is a thousand and one fold.”
Note that it is not simply untestability that Popper is objecting to but a spurious claim that the theory had now more evidence in its favor than before the explanation of the apparent disconfirmation. So it is not the rejection of the apparent disconfirmation alone that is the ground of his indictment.
Let me illustrate. There is a story that J. Edgar Hoover, when he was anticipating a report on the telephone conversations of suspected subversives, prepared a list with two outcomes: “subversive,” if there were incriminating conversations, and “cunning subversive,” if there were not. Now, what was Hoover’s malpractice? It was not in refusing to treat the non-occurrence of incriminating conversations as exonerating, for this was perfectly compatible with the suspect being a “cunning subversive.” What is deplorable is his failure to provide a third category, i.e., “yet to be decided.” He treated the possibility of “cunning subversive” as evidence of guilt rather than as just leaving the matter open. His fault was the same as Adler’s, and the simple judgment “untestable” obscures the relevant considerations. It is not untestable theses per se but their accompaniment by claims that the theory has been subjected to attempts at falsification and survived them which characterizes the pseudo-scientist.
But testability has a more radical deficiency as a criterion of pseudo-science. It is the implication that if a theorist accepts falsification of his general claims, he has done all that is necessary to exonerate him from the charge of practicing pseudo-science. Suppose that an advocate of the thesis that all swans are rainbow-colored generously admits that he has overstated his case and concedes the authenticity of white swan reports. Does this settle the question of his status as a bona fide enquirer? Would we not wish for assurance that his reports of rainbow-colored swans were well-founded?
The appropriate criterion of pseudo-science in this area is not untestability but the issuance of spurious instantiation reports. How is such spuriousness to be demonstrated? It is in addressing this question that Popper’s emphasis on the testability is of law-like claims is unhelpful.
The grounds that the analyst can produce for public inspection in favor of an interpretation along Freudian lines may be admittedly inadequate, but he can argue that the bulk of his evidence consists of private non-transmissible grounds such as the patient’s posture, facial expression, tone of voice, etc. (Ernest Jones advances this extenuation). It then becomes obvious that the case depends on judgments as to the judiciousness, disinterestedness, and probity of the analyst. This explains the longevity and intractability of disputes both about and within psychoanalysis. I have brought together grounds for distrusting Freud’s own testimony in a paper which has been translated into French “Epistemologie et Mauvaise Foi: Le cas du Freudism” in Le Livre Noir de la Psychoanalyse, ed. C. Meyer, 2005) but for which I have been unable to secure publication in an Anglophone journal—so tenacious is the myth of Freud’s trustworthiness.
Freud’s habitual departures from truthfulness are now conceded by even ardent admirers. Robert Holt now admits that Freud “did undoubtedly make up many constructions from theoretical whole cloth, later presenting them as what his patients told him.” (Robert Holt review of Macmillan’s Freud Evaluated, in Psychoanalytic Books, Winter 1997, p. 404) And Ian Hacking admits that “Freud … like many a dedicated theoretician probably fudged the evidence in favor of his theory” but that his “passionate commitment to truth is fully compatible with—may even demand—lying through one’s teeth.” (Rewriting the Soul, p. 195)
SC: What do you say to the assertion that psychoanalytic claims should not be judged as scientific claims? Rather, they are extensions of our ordinary understanding of the mind, our commonsense, or folk psychology.
FC: The question that has to be addressed is how do we distinguish between common sense psychology claims that are sustainable from claims that are not? Which of Freud’s claims are being put forward as sustainable? Nagel is careful not to say.
Consider a psychoanalytic claim which was treated as demonstrated in an abnormal psychology text for undergraduates: Women prefer their firstborn to be male because they have long craved the penis a male child brings with it. How does it help describe this as an extension of common- sense psychology?
SC: A few defenders of Freud have sought to soften and relativize his theories. For instance, the philosopher Thomas Nagel has written, “Much of human mental life consists of complex events that will never precisely recur. If we wish to understand real life, it is useless to demand repeatable experiments with strict controls.” Do you find any merit in Nagel’s viewpoint?
FC: Yes, but only as a corrective of the scientific obtuseness of philosophers like Adolph Grünbaum and not as a defense of Freud’s practice. An advocate of Freud’s status as a discoverer, the philosopher, Walter Kaufman writes: “If it should be found that [‘the oedipal triangle’] is not at the core of every neurosis … it would not follow at all that Freud’s discovery of the Oedipus complex is not a major contribution.” (Walter Kaufmann Discovering the Mind, Mcgraw Hill Vol. III, 1980:115.) This is true. Freud’s mistake would have been only to generalize his discoveries. But where has it been shown that the Oedipus Complex is at the core of a single neurosis?
If a patient came out in a rash that read “Thou shall not covet thy father’s wife” we would have a plausible instance of the mechanism of conversion applied to oedipal conflicts and the fact that it could not explain every hysterical symptom would not impugn the value of his discovery. Nor would our inability to state the conditions under which we would deem it false make it pseudoscientific.
It is the veridicality of particular instantiation claims, which must be assessed and not their generality. How can we go about this? We must take an explanation of a complex event, which we agree is cogent, and then ask how closely the Freudian ones approximate it.
Nagel’s defense only works if we are amnesic for the explanation of “complex events” that Freud actually gave. For example, consider Freud’s account of why an obsessive patient was plagued by the thought of his father being subjected to cruel torture in which ravenous rats are introduced into the victim’s body and eventually burrow their way out through his rectum.
According to Freud, the patient’s associations show him to equate rats to babies and their emerging from the rectum, when subjected to the principle of reversal, reveal themselves to be babies anomalously born of a male. This constituted an insult to his father and called for self-punishment, which Freud then considers explained. This has been widely extolled as a brilliant clinical diagnostic feat.
But consider this—the torture, which plagued the patient, was merely a repetition of a torture described to him a day before its first appearance by a sadistic Captain in the unit in which he was serving. What need was there for the introduction of his childhood fantasy that children are born through the rectum and that men, as well as women, can bear them? Is it not gratuitous? How does Nagel’s persuasive counsel to eschew the demand for strict controls redeem Freud’s tendentiousness?
The defense of Freud’s interpretations does not always take the form of a denial that Freud’s positive instantiation reports are spurious (though admission is often reluctant). It is argued rather that spurious instances do not preclude the existence of genuine ones, and these are weighted differently by the contending parties extenuating or compensating for some and not for others. I have dubbed this, prompted by a remark of Wittgenstein’s, “the asininity/insight ratio.”
Here is my paradigm of asininity—how the operation of the primary process transformed a childhood trauma into an adult affliction. As an adult, the patient often felt a depression. This depression was the transformation of a childhood episode in which he had placed his hand between a little girl’s thighs and instead of encountering a penis like his own, “felt a depression.” (Ella Freeman Sharpe, Dream Analysis, Hogarth, 1930, p. 32) As an adult, he symbolically enacts this trauma by “feeling a depression.”
Nagel would probably concede that this example (from a work once used in the training of analysts) is asinine, but what would he put forward as the “insight,” which compensates for it? Esterson has produced good reasons for doubting that Freud has given any.
SC: Throughout your writings, you’ve invoked Wittgenstein’s remarks on Freud to elucidate certain points about psychoanalysis. What may we learn from Wittgenstein that’s useful in understanding Freud?
FC: There are two distinct epistemic conceptions of how it is appropriate to respond to statements, which purport to tell us what lies at the back of our minds or influencing our current mental state. We can appoint ourselves arbiters of their correctness, or we can deny ourselves any special role in determining their truth and treat them as if they were addressed to a third party. The first of these Wittgenstein dubs “further descriptions”; the second we call hypotheses.
The confusion of these two categories, which Wittgenstein finds endemic in psychoanalysis he describes as an “abominable mess.” When the question is the familiar one of finding the word at the tip of our tongues, it is obvious which is the opposite procedure. Elsewhere it is not so clear.
In the third of the aesthetic lectures, Wittgenstein speaks of “An entirely new account of correct explanation, you have to give the explanation that is accepted; that is the whole point of the explanation.” We can readily call to mind examples of explanation where the procedure Wittgenstein commends would be profoundly obscurantist.
The profitability of addressing Freud through Wittgenstein lies in its compelling us to address more strenuously the relative value to us of articulating our self-feeling as opposed to identifying the causal influences which make it the self-feeling that it is.
SC: What do you make of the view espoused by Elizabeth Thornton that Freud’s research may have been flawed as his findings were influenced by his altered states of consciousness as a result of his excessive use of cocaine?
FC: Too speculative. There are more straightforward ways of accounting for Freud’s “flawed” findings as Allen Esterson has copiously illustrated in his book Seductive Mirage.
SC: Thomas Szasz, long the most outspoken gadfly of his profession, insists that there is really no such thing as mental illness, only normal problems of living. Do you agree?
FC: I have never found Szasz’s arguments that there is no such thing as mental illness convincing. My admiration for Szasz is based on my perception of him as a great champion of civil liberties in his battle against the abuse of psychiatric power. But the correct argument against this abuse is not that there is no such thing as mental illness, but that mental illness does not supply adequate grounds for depriving individuals of their civil rights. This must rest on the demonstration that they are a danger to others. This is rarely the case.
SC: Freud has bequeathed a rich panoply of metaphors for the mental life such as penis envy; castration anxiety; phallic symbols; the ego, id, and superego; repressed memories; Oedipal itches; sexual sublimation. Have any of these survived the test of time beyond mere terms embraced by popular culture?
FC: What you must ask is: suppose you woke up one morning with complete amnesia for the meaning of the itemized terms; in what ways would you be disadvantaged? Wouldn’t it be more like forgetting the names of all the current movie stars than forgetting to sterilize your hands before performing surgery? You would be at a loss to fathom the genitalization of the cultural landscape. You would no longer understand why the Empire State Building was considered a symbolic erection; why the lamp rubbed by Aladdin was really his phallus; why the locked room in the classical whodunit is the parents’ bedroom and what it conceals is the primal scene, etc. etc. No activity, which depends on knowledge for its successful execution, would be held up. Only in conversation would you be at a disadvantage.
SC: One charge leveled at psychoanalysis is that it is cruelly glacial. It takes years for patients to see results, if at all. What is your view on its efficacy as a treatment?
FC: It is my understanding that the claim for the differential efficacy of psychoanalysis is no longer made.
SC: Freud hated America. Yet America embraced him wholeheartedly. Why was America more hospitable to psychoanalysis than any other country outside Germany and Austria? What was it that America embraced wholeheartedly?
FC: Someone once said of Christianity that it was always transforming itself into something which could be believed. That this is even truer of psychoanalysis is illustrated by the following vindication of Freud’s status.
“Is it reasonable to assume that early childhood experiences affect adult personalities? Does a Mother’s love really matter? Is sex important? Do people act without full awareness of their motivations? Because the answer is yes, it follows that Freud made important contributions to the science of psychology.” This is not from a blog but from a scholarly journal which advises libraries on book purchases. (F. L. Coolidge, Choice, March 1999)
I would like to mention an overlooked feature of Freudian discourse, which makes its popularity less surprising. This is the way in which it may collude with our sexual hypocrisy and bad faith. We may be quite happy to acknowledge the full range of our polymorphous perversity so long as we are permitted to declare it unconscious rather than intermittently obtrusive and importunate. The Freudian unconscious permits us to declare ourselves oblivious of that of which we may be not oblivious but disquietingly, if intermittently, aware.
SC: Freud had lots of anecdotes but almost no empirical data. Today, however, neurologists are using modern brain imaging to map the neurological activity inside a living brain. Do you feel that as researchers dig deeper into the physical structure of the brain that some of Freud’s theories will be vindicated?
FC: Advances in neurology will vindicate the amorphous and figurative speculations of Freud in the same sense in which the major events of the last few centuries vindicate the prophetic powers of Nostradamus.