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Was Freud right about anything?

Sigmund Freud, 1856-1939, Austrian psychiatrist, in the office of his Vienna home looking at a manuscript.
Sigmund Freud, 1856-1939, Austrian psychiatrist, in the office of his Vienna home looking at a manuscript.
(Image: © Bettmann via Getty Images)

Sigmund Freud is one of the most famous doctors to delve into the human subconscious. But is anything he said rooted in science?

After all, one of his most memorable ideas suggested that we're all repressing our true desires to have sex with our parents. But Freud didn't use science to arrive at this idea. He started out with a theory and then worked backward, seeking out tidbits to reinforce his beliefs and then aggressively dismissing anything else that challenged those ideas. That's according to Frederick Crews, a one-time Freudian follower and professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. 

"Freud passed himself off as a scientist. He was very sensitive to objections and would simply laugh at an objection and claim the person making it was psychologically ill," Crews told Live Science.

Related: Why can't we remember our dreams?

Back in 2017, Crews wrote "Freud: The Making of an Illusion" (Metropolitan Books) to examine the legitimacy of Freudian principles.

"Statistically, it's conceivable that a man can be as dishonest and slippery as Freud and still come up with something true," Crews said. "I've tried my best to examine his theories and to ask the question: What was the empirical evidence behind them? But when you ask these questions, then you eventually just lose hope."

As damning an assessment as that is, it wasn't always like this for the founding father of psychoanalysis, who wrote that mental health problems could be cured by bringing unconscious thoughts back into the conscious realm. In his own time, Freud enjoyed celebrity status as a leading intellectual of the 20th century.

Chief among Freud's overflow of opinions was the "Oedipus complex," the hypothesis that every young boy wants to have sex with his mother and so wants to murder his father, whom he sees as a rival. But there's a catch. The boy also has the foresight to realize that his father is simultaneously his protector. Presented with this challenging scenario, the child is forced to repress his homicidal cravings. 

"It's just about the craziest idea that anyone ever had," Crews said. When people asked about young girls, Freud hastily came up with another idea, the Electra complex. "It's just a cut-and-paste job. Suddenly, the little girl wants to have sex with her father," Crews said. "It's completely ludicrous."

At the core of both these theories is the notion of repressed emotions. That very concept empowered Freud to dismiss his detractors. "He would always be totally convinced he knew what was wrong with his patients and then simply browbeat them until they agreed. When patients disagreed, he didn't entertain the notion that he could be mistaken," Crews said. "He invoked his favorite concepts, chiefly repression, and would say the patient's unconscious secretly harbored Freud's ideas but was too scared to confront them. That's the exact opposite of testing ideas."

But not everyone is as critical as Crews. 

"Freud was right about 'day residue' in dreams," said Robert Stickgold, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "But the whole psychoanalysis thing, and the role of childhood sexuality, was totally bonkers."

Day residues are exactly what you think they are: traces of what happened in reality that find their way into our dreams. Freud was nothing if not prolific, content to opine on matters as diverse as sexual perversions, the notion of female "hysteria," and subliminal memory, or the memories that supposedly lurk in parts of the brain separate from the conscious. But for some observers, that's where the man's apparent genius lies.

"You can think of him as an idea factory," explained Harold Takooshian, a professor of psychology at Fordham University in New York City. "Freud never considered himself a data guy. He hoped other people would take on his ideas to prove or disprove them."

But Freud's theories are, on the whole, almost impossible to submit to the rigor of statistical analysis that legitimate science has to endure, said Crews. "That's because his ideas are hopelessly vague. How do you test for them? They're just phrases."

Originally published on Live Science.

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  • kmcowan
    Given that the advertising industry leverages his theories as a foundation for all advertisement, and given that advertising works, I'd say: Yes, his theories are valid. Watch the documentary "The Century of Self."
    Reply
  • kamikrazee
    I'd say that Freud was basically correct, though not in an all encompassing way. With credit to the Firesign Theater, "we are all just Bozo's on this Bus".

    So there.
    Reply
  • snakecharmer
    This is a typical example of the resistance to Freud that has beset psychoanalysis from the outset--and a rather weak attack at that. A more interesting article would be how Freud was right about almost everything! Here are some of the examples of things Freud was right about:
    1) Dreams--still the best theory out there (disguised "wish fulfillment"
    2) Fundamental and continued attraction to the first love object, usually the mother
    3) Persistence of the infantile--e.g. narcissism, play, love, etc. (e.g. The President and his followers.)
    4) Sexual "perversions" as the repressed nature of human sexuality
    5) Misogyny as based on repressed desire for the mother.
    Or, if you like, a one word defense: note the frequent use of the common term for sex with the mother (not even allowed to print it here, as well as the term for the woman's genitalia as opposed to the male's).
    Etc. Etc.
    Reply
  • beanstock13
    Freud was actually most interested in the unconscious, not the subconscious. Also, he did not actually say that we are all repressing desires to have sex with our parents.
    Reply
  • beanstock13
    snakecharmer said:
    This is a typical example of the resistance to Freud that has beset psychoanalysis from the outset--and a rather weak attack at that. Here are some of the examples of things Freud was right about:
    1) Dreams--still the best theory out there (disguised "wish fulfillment"
    2) Fundamental and continued attraction to the first love object, usually the mother
    3) Persistence of the infantile--e.g. narcissism, play, love, etc.
    4) Sexual "perversions" as the repressed nature of human sexuality
    5) Misogyny as based on repressed desire for the mother.
    Or, if you like, a one word defense: note the frequent use of the common term for sex with the mother (not even allowed to print it here, as well as the term for the woman's genitalia as opposed to the male's).
    Etc. Etc.
    Well said. Not that it will probably help....
    Reply
  • jdb
    Freud was certainly right about psychosexual development and oral/anal fixations. Just go look for some toilet paper during the COVID-19 scare.
    Reply
  • Michel
    From a classic 1970s critique of Freudian psychoanalysis: "Is it possible that, by taking the path that it has, psychoanalysis is reviving an age-old tendency to humble us, to demean us, and to make us feel guilty? Foucault has noted that the relationship between madness and the family can be traced back in large part to a development that affected the whole of bourgeois society in the nineteenth century: the family was entrusted with functions that became the measuring rod of the responsibility of its members and their possible guilt. Insofar as psychoanalysis cloaks insanity in the mantle of a 'parental complex', and regards the patterns of self-punishment resulting from Oedipus as a confession of guilt, its theories are not at all radical or innovative. On the contrary: it is completing the task begun by nineteenth-century psychology, namely, to develop a moralized, familial discourse of mental pathology, linking madness to the 'half-real, half-imaginary dialectic of the Family', deciphering within it 'the unending attempt to murder the father', 'the dull thud of instincts hammering at the solidity of the family as an institution and at its most archaic symbols'. Hence, instead of participating in an undertaking that will bring about genuine liberation, psychoanalysis is taking part in the work of bourgeois repression at its most far-reaching level, that is to say, keeping European humanity harnessed to the yoke of daddy-mommy and making no effort to do away with this problem once and for all. ... We are surprised when we hear a knowledgeable analyst mention, in passing, that one of his 'patients' still dreams of being invited to eat or have a drink at his place, after several years of analysis, as if this were not a tiny sign of the abject dependence to which analysis reduced the patients. How can we ward off, in the practice of the cure, this abject desire that makes us bend our knees, lays us on the couch, and makes us remain there? ... We are all little colonies and it is Oedipus that colonizes us." — Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, Viking Penguin, 1977 (originally published 1972)

    Similar critiques have been made by very different writers. Here's psychiatrist Theodore Dorpat writing in the 1990s: "Freud's need for power and control over his patients, and to some extent also his followers, was sufficiently strong that it prevailed irrespective of what he said in his discussion of technique and theory." — Theodore Dorpat, Gaslighting, the Double Whammy, Interrogation and Other Methods of Covert Control in Psychotherapy and Analysis, Jason Aronson, 1996
    Reply
  • Pooua
    kmcowan said:
    Given that the advertising industry leverages his theories as a foundation for all advertisement, and given that advertising works, I'd say: Yes, his theories are valid. Watch the documentary "The Century of Self."
    Coincidence is not causation... especially from such a vague description as you provide. In what way is anything that Freud suggested used in modern advertising? "Sex sells"?
    Reply
  • Pooua
    snakecharmer said:
    This is a typical example of the resistance to Freud that has beset psychoanalysis from the outset--and a rather weak attack at that. A more interesting article would be how Freud was right about almost everything! Here are some of the examples of things Freud was right about:
    1) Dreams--still the best theory out there (disguised "wish fulfillment"
    2) Fundamental and continued attraction to the first love object, usually the mother
    3) Persistence of the infantile--e.g. narcissism, play, love, etc. (e.g. The President and his followers.)
    4) Sexual "perversions" as the repressed nature of human sexuality
    5) Misogyny as based on repressed desire for the mother.
    Or, if you like, a one word defense: note the frequent use of the common term for sex with the mother (not even allowed to print it here, as well as the term for the woman's genitalia as opposed to the male's).
    Etc. Etc.

    The tragedy is that alternate explanations are more likely correct and far more productive. Freud set psychological "science" in the wrong direction, using it to advance his own pet theories. We have the same sickness in the psychological sciences today.
    Reply
  • snakecharmer
    Michel said:
    From a classic 1970s critique of Freudian psychoanalysis: "Is it possible that, by taking the path that it has, psychoanalysis is reviving an age-old tendency to humble us, to demean us, and to make us feel guilty? Foucault has noted that the relationship between madness and the family can be traced back in large part to a development that affected the whole of bourgeois society in the nineteenth century: the family was entrusted with functions that became the measuring rod of the responsibility of its members and their possible guilt. Insofar as psychoanalysis cloaks insanity in the mantle of a 'parental complex', and regards the patterns of self-punishment resulting from Oedipus as a confession of guilt, its theories are not at all radical or innovative. On the contrary: it is completing the task begun by nineteenth-century psychology, namely, to develop a moralized, familial discourse of mental pathology, linking madness to the 'half-real, half-imaginary dialectic of the Family', deciphering within it 'the unending attempt to murder the father', 'the dull thud of instincts hammering at the solidity of the family as an institution and at its most archaic symbols'. Hence, instead of participating in an undertaking that will bring about genuine liberation, psychoanalysis is taking part in the work of bourgeois repression at its most far-reaching level, that is to say, keeping European humanity harnessed to the yoke of daddy-mommy and making no effort to do away with this problem once and for all. ... We are surprised when we hear a knowledgeable analyst mention, in passing, that one of his 'patients' still dreams of being invited to eat or have a drink at his place, after several years of analysis, as if this were not a tiny sign of the abject dependence to which analysis reduced the patients. How can we ward off, in the practice of the cure, this abject desire that makes us bend our knees, lays us on the couch, and makes us remain there? ... We are all little colonies and it is Oedipus that colonizes us." — Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, Viking Penguin, 1977 (originally published 1972)

    Similar critiques have been made by very different writers. Here's psychiatrist Theodore Dorpat writing in the 1990s: "Freud's need for power and control over his patients, and to some extent also his followers, was sufficiently strong that it prevailed irrespective of what he said in his discussion of technique and theory." — Theodore Dorpat, Gaslighting, the Double Whammy, Interrogation and Other Methods of Covert Control in Psychotherapy and Analysis, Jason Aronson, 1996
    There are many examples of resistance to Freud from theoreticians who should know better (cf. Foucault's ingenious idea that the idea of repression is itself a repressive idea!), but, in the case of Deleuze, you might want to update your reference to his far more respectful comments about Freud, as in his book on Sacher-Masoch
    Reply