Friday, August 17, 2007

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

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Sigmund Freud (b. May 6, 1856 in Freiberg, Moravia (now known as Priborg in the Czech Republic) - d. September 23, 1939 in England) was an Austrian neurologist, who was interested in hypnotism and how it could be used to help the mentally ill. Freud was especially interested in what was then called hysteria, and is now called conversion syndrome. At first he relied on hypnosis, but he soon developed what is now known as "the talking cure," and which provides one of the core elements of psychoanalysis. Though his radical work inspired generations of scientists in all fields, Freud's theories are hotly debated by academics to this day, and some consider his theories to be pseudoscience.

Freud's Innovations

Freud has been influential in two related, but distinct ways. He simultaneously developed a theory of the human mind and human behavior, and a clinical technique for helping unhappy (i.e. neurotic) people. Many people claim to have been influenced by one but not the other.

Perhaps the most significant contribution Freud has made to modern thought is his conception of the unconscious. During the 19th century the dominant trend in Western thought was positivism, the claim that people could accumulate real knowledge about themselves and their world, and exercise rational control over both. Freud, however, suggested that these claims were in fact delusions; that we are not entirely aware of what we even think, and often act for reasons that have nothing to do with our conscious thoughts. The concept of the unconscious was groundbreaking in that he proposed that awareness existed in layers and there were thoughts occurring "below the surface." Dreams, called the "royal road to the unconscious" provided the best examples of our unconscious life, and in The Interpretation of Dreams Freud both developed the argument that the unconscious exists, and developed a method for gaining access to it. The Preconscious was described as a layer between conscious and unconscious thought -- that which we could access with a little effort. (The term "subconscious" while popularly used, is not actually part of psychoanalytical terminology.) Although there are still many adherants to a purely positivist and rationalist view, most people, including many who reject other elements of Freud's work, accept the claim that part of the mind is unconscious, and that people often act for reasons of which they are not conscious.

Crucial to the operation of the unconscious is "repression." According to Freud, people often experience thoughts and feelings that are so painful that people cannot bear them. Such thoughts and feelings -- and associated memories -- could not, Freud argued, be banished from the mind, but could be banished from consciousness. Thus they come to constitute the unconscious. Although Freud later attempted to find patterns of repression among his patients in order to derive a general model of the mind, he also observed that individual patients repress different things. Moreover, Freud observed that the process of repression is itself a non-conscious act (in other words, it did not occur through people willing away certain throughts or feelings). Freud supposed that what people repressed was in part determined by their unconscious. In other words, the unconscious was for Freud both a cause and effect of repression.

Freud sought to explain how the unconscious operates by proposing that it has a particular structure. He proposed that the unconscious was divided into three parts: Id, Ego and Superego. The Id (Latin, = "it" = "es" in the original german) represented primary process thinking -- our most primitive need gratification type thoughts. The Superego represented our conscience and counteracted the Id with moral and ethical thoughts. The Ego -- stands in between both to balance our primitive needs and our moral/ethical beliefs. A healthy ego provides the ability to adapt to reality and interact with the outside world in a way that accommodates both Id and Superego. The general claim that the mind is not a monolithic or homogeneous thing continues to have an enormous influence on people outside of psychology. Many, however, have questioned or rejected the specific claim that the mind is divided into these three components.

Freud was especially concerned with the dynamic relationship between these three parts of the mind. Freud argued that the dynamic is driven by innate drives. But he also argued that the dynamic changes in the context of changing social relationships. Some have criticized Freud for giving too much importance to one or the other of these factors; similarly, many of Freud's followers have focused on one or the other.

Freud believed that humans were driven by two instinctive drives, libidinal energy/eros and the death instinct/thanatos. Freud's description of Eros/Libido included all creative, life-producing instincts. The Death Instinct represented an instinctive drive to return to a state of calm, or non-existence and was based on his studies of protozoa. (See: Beyond the Pleasure Principle). Many have challenged the scientific basis for this claim.

Freud also believed that the libido developed in individuals by changing its object. He argued that humans are born "polymorphously perverse," meaning that any number of objects could be a source of pleasure. He further argued that as humans developed they fixated on different, and specific, objects -- first oral (exemplified by an infant's pleasure in nursing), then anal (exemplified by a toddler's pleasure in controling his or her bowels), then phallic. Freud argued that children then passed through a stage where they fixated on the parent of the opposite sex. Freud sought to anchor this pattern of development in the dynamics of the mind. Each stage is a progression into adult sexual maturity, characterized by a strong ego and the ability to delay need gratification. (see Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality.)

Freud's model of psycho-sexual development has been criticized from different perspectives. Some have attacked Freud's claim that infants are sexual beings (and, implicitly, Freud's expanded notion of sexuality). Others have accepted Freud's expanded notion of sexuality, but have argued that this pattern of development is not universal, nor necessary for the development of a healthy adult. Instead, they have emphasized the social and environmental sources of patterns of development. Moreover, they call attention to social dynamics Freud de-emphasized or ignored (such as class relations).

Freud hoped to prove that his model, based primarily on observations of middle-class Viennese, was universally valid. He thus turned to ancient mythology and contemporary ethnography for comparative material. Freud used the Greek tragedy by Sophocles Oedipus Rex to point out how much we (specifically, young boys) desire incest, and must repres that desire. The Oedipus conflict was described as a state of psychosexual development and awareness. He also turned to anthropological studies of totemism and argued that totemism reflected a ritualized enactment of an tribal Oedipal conflict. Although many scholars today are intrigued by Freud's attempts to re-analyze cultural material, most have rejected his specific interpretations as forced.

Freud hoped that his research would provide a solid scientific basis for his therapeutic technique. The goal of Freudian therapy, or psychoanalysis, was to bring to consciousness repressed thoughts and feelings, in order to allow the patient to develop a stronger ego. Classically, the bringing of unconscious thoughts and feelings to consciousness is brought about by encouraging the patient to talk in "free-association" and to talk about dreams. Another important element of psychoanalysis is a relative lack of direct involvement on the part of the analyst, which is meant to encourage the patient to project thoughts and feelings onto the analyst. Through this process, called "transference," the patient can reenact and resolve repressed conflicts, especially childhood conflicts with (or about) parents.

Today Freudian theory and practice have been modified by countless empirical findings and theoretical debates. Many people continue to train in, and practice, traditional Freudian psychoanalysis. Although Freud developed this method for the treatment of neuroses, many people today seek out psychoanalysis not as a cure for an illness, but as part of a process of self-discovery.

Freudian Psychoanalysis, Psychology, and Psychiatry

Freud trained as a medical doctor, and consistently claimed that his research methods and conclusions were scientific. Nevertheless, his research and practice were condemned by many of his peers. Moreover, both critics and followers of Freud have observed that his basic claim, that many of our conscious thoughts and actions are motivated by unconscious fears and desires, implicitly challenges universal and objective claims about the world (proponents of science conclude that this invalidates Freudian theory; proponents of Freud conclude that this invalidates science). Psychoanalysis today maintains the same ambivalent relationship with medicine and academia that Freud experienced during his life.

Clinical psychologists, who seek to treat mental illness, relate to Freudian psychoanalysis in different ways. Some clinical psychologists have modified this approach, and have developed a variety of "psychodynamic" models and therapies. Other clinical psychologists reject Freud's model of the mind, but have adapted elements of his therapeutic method, especially his reliance on patients' talking as a form of therapy. Non-clinical psychology (e.g. social psychology) generally rejects Freud's methods and models. Like Freud, Psychiatrists train as medical doctors, but -- like most medical doctors in Freud's time -- most reject his theory of the mind, and generally rely more on drugs than talk in their treatments.

Freud's psychological theories are hotly disputed today and many leading academic and research psychiatrists regard him as a charlatan. Although Freud was long regarded as a genius and the founder of psychology, today psychiatry has been recast as a scientific discipline and psychiatric disorders as diseases of the brain whose etiology is principally genetic. This is largely due to the repudiation of Freud's theories and the adoption of many of the basic scientific principles of Freud's principal opponent in the field of psychiatry, Emil Kraepelin. In his book The Freudian Fraud, research psychiatrist E. Fuller-Torrey provides an account of the political and social forces which combined to raise Freud to the status of a divinity to those who needed a theoretical foundation for their political and social views. Many of the diseases which used to be treated with Freudian and related forms of therapy (such as schizophrenia) have been unequivocally demonstrated to be impervious to such treatments. Freud's notion that the child's relationship to the parent is responsible for everything from psychiatric diseases to criminal behavior has also been thoroughly discredited and the influence of such theories is today regarded as a relic of a permissive age in which "blame-the-parent" was the accepted dogma. For many decades genetic and biological causes of psychiatric disorders were dismissed without scientific investigation in favor of environmental (parental and social) influences. Today even the most extreme Freudian environmentalists would not deny the great influence of genetic and biological factors. The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the latest edition of which is the DSM-IV), the official standard for diagnosing psychological disorders in the USA, reflects the universal adoption of the neo-Kraepelinian scientific-biological approach to psychiatric disorders, with its emphasis on diagnostic precision and the search for biological and genetic etiologies--largely ignored during the earlier Freud-dominated decades of the twentieth century.

Little is known of Freud's early life as he twice destroyed his personal papers, once in 1885 and again in 1907. Additionally, his latter papers were closely guarded in the Sigmund Freud Archives and only available to Ernest Jones, his official biographer and a few other members of the inner circle of psychoanalysis. The work of Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson shed some light on the nature of the suppressed material. In 1938 following the Nazi German anschluss of Austria, Freud escaped with his family to England. [This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Sigmund Freud.]

The Modern Challenge to Freud's Science

Russell McNeil, PhD (Copyright 2005)
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A. Introduction

How important is Freud's influence on modernity?

Sigmund Freud (along with Karl Marx, Charles Darwin and Friedrich Nietzsche) has had as much influence in shaping the modern world as any other figure from the Western tradition. On that basis alone we need to deal with him. But from the perspective of science does Freud's does Freud have merit? Is the Freudian paradigm scientific? I am persuaded that Freud himself might respond in the negative. I will argue this perspective based on the notion that Freud's grand schema in Civilization and its Discontents -- a tension between the two primal instincts, aggression and love, emerges for Freud more as revealed truth than as science. This struggle between life and death rests firmly upon Freud's psychoanalytic theory of human behavior. The credibility that has surrounded Freud's psychoanalytic foundation is so strong that anything resting on it glows in its light. Yet, this foundation may be crumbling.

Let's review Freud's basic argument. In a nutshell, the purpose of life is simply the program of the Pleasure Principle. Civilization is a process in the service of the sexual instinct Eros. Along side and in opposition to Eros there is a second aggressive instinct called Thanatos. To disarm this potentially destructive conflict between Eros and Thanatos Freud erects an internal authority, the Super-Ego. The tension between what the conscious Ego wants to do and what the unconscious Super-Ego prevents us from doing manifests as guilt. At the level of civilization this tension produces an unconscious collective malaise. The Super-Ego extrapolated to civilization becomes its group ethics. When these group demand is unrealistic (according to Freud) such as in the command Love thy Neighbour as Thyself, the collective malaise can be intolerable. In response to this overly ambitious ethical demand Freud recommends lowering the group demand in ordert to lessen the pain, anxiety and fear that the Super-Ego exacts.

What is Freud up to? Freud is claiming here that human purpose -- and all human behavior, individual and social, can be understood and completely described--at least in principle--within the rubric of our animal nature: as a struggle between the instincts of Eros and Thanatos.

This is a fundamentally pessimistic view. God for Freud is not only dead (as Nietzsche and Marx would assert), but Freud replaces God with an evil. Religion for Freud, depresses the value of life and distorts the real world in a delusional manner. Freud isn't the first to dismiss God. Much enlightenment thinking had already removed the Gods from their traditional interventionist role in human affairs. And Marx and Nietzsche had dismissed the Gods completely. But, Marx and Nietzsche filled the vacuum with promises of utopia (Marx) or a will to power (Nietzsche). Freud's God-substitute, the Super-Ego is a fearful and distressing source of suffering.

Should we take this seriously?

Freud's vision here rests upon his extensive experience as the pioneer of psychoanalytic therapy. The fundamental elements of that paradigm rests squarely upon his own empirical clinical experience -- one of the methodological cornerstones of any valid scientific model. He then grafted these empirical elements onto his grand behavioral design -- an ego-id-superego theory of human behavior familiar developed from a morphological transformation of the tripartite division of the human psyche or soul in Plato's Republic. Freud's grand social design for civilization, the struggle between Eros and Thanatos, rests --- like the top card on this house of cards -- on the integrity of his model of the mind. It is the integrity of this model of the mind I'd like to examine here.

I suspect that Freud's model of the mind has failed to live up to its predictions. The model argues that we are sexual creatures with an instinct for self preservation. That much may be true. But for Freud, much if not all of our behavior as adults is seen in this light. Our personalities are formed through early childhood influences, and later guided by these drives. The clusters of Freudian personality traits developed by Freud: oral, anal, genital, and Oedipal were formed by early experience and in later life govern much of our action.

There is no dispute that Freud has had enormous influence. Freud has become the context within which many of us lead our lives. The language of Freud has become a common currency across the globe. It has become the principle paradigm of the human mind much as relativity, quantum mechanics and evolution have become paradigms for physics and biology. Freud's success, like the successes of Einstein, Planck and Darwin, rests on the rock of scientific respectability. To question Freud today is to question a fundamental assertion of the modern comprehension of human nature. It is as risky as challenging any broadly entrenched cultural mythological system from the Christian World View during the renaissance, the Geocentric cosmos before Copernicus or the Great Chain of Being after Aristotle.

We first need to understand just how grounded Freud's mythology is:

B. Freud's Influence

Most of the reasons I use to bolster this challenge to Civilization and its Discontents rest on a fundamental challenge of Freud's psychoanalytic project as developed by E. Fuller Torrey and his 1993 analysis of Freud, Freudian Fraud: The Malignant Effect of Freud's Theory on American Thought and Culture. For lecture purposes my synthesis and paraphrasing of Torrey's arguments are summarized below. A comprehensive review of Torrey's arguments by Professor Paul C. Vitz is available online in the Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life.

As Torrey explains, Freud's arguments were grounded or claimed to be
grounded in impeccable science has given them great force. The liberal and humanistic tradition owes much to Freud. The work and writings of Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict and Benjamin Spock -- to name three prominent 20th century pioneers in liberal ideology were influenced heavily by Freud.
When the Nazis with their misdirected eugenics in mind -- began burning books in 1933, the works of Freud and Marx were first to the fire.

The post war influence of Freud on post war popular culture was enormous. The Freudian based plays and movies hit the stage and screen with astonishing regularity: A Streetcar named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Carousel, Oklahoma, Caine Mutiny, Three Faces of Eve, Spellbound, and in recent decades just about anything done by Woody Allen.

Torrey argues that child rearing became Freud's private pasture. Benjamin Spock's Baby and Child Care is number three on the all time list of best selling books in the English language. Spock, a professed Freudian, belonged to a school that believed humans entered the world as blank slates. He persuaded two generations of parents that childhood rearing: weaning, tickling, playing, and toilet training are psychic minefields. Parents who screwed up in these formative areas might leave permanent personality scars on their children identified as oral, anal, genital, or Oedipal misdevelopment.

Spock's catalogue of advice is drawn directly from the Freudian model. Forced potty training makes us anal Retentive. Persistent bed wetting is traceable to Unconscious regression. The Castration complex is rooted in a parental failure to properly characterize female anatomy. Indelicate attitudes towards childhood masturbation result in sexual maladjustments. Spankings can initiate sexual perversions in later life. Sleeping with a parent might kindle an oedipal response. Children ought never see their parents in the nude; tickling a child is dangerous; so too are pillow fights, and growling like a lion.

The influences permeate other areas of society.

Our social approach to criminology and corrections, according to Torrey, is heavily influenced by Freud. Crime and criminal behavior is increasingly seen as a product of early childhood experience and a consequence of a suite of complexes, antisocial tendencies, repressions, delusions and actions of the unconscious mind.

Progressive and liberal education practice owes a debt to Freud as well as schools in the post-war period developed a more permissive style, hired Freudian councilors, and shifted their approaches from intellectual attainment to creative personality.

In Torrey's view, Freud's influence has also transformed the University. Anthropology was strongly influenced by Mead and Benedict (Coming of Age in Samoa, Patterns of Culture). The interpretation of literature has been strongly influenced by psychoanalytic interpretations, criticisms and courses. So too has out modern understanding of history. What really made Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin or Marx tick? We look to Freud.

Torrey also examines the deeply rooted personal growth movement and traces its debt to Freud as well. Personal growth attributes many of our human problems, from shyness and depression to drug abuse and eating disorders, to early childhood experience. Our problems arise from dysfunctional parenting, a form of abuse leading to adult codependence -- an inability to lead a full and meaningful life. The recovery strategies advocated by writers in this movement are inherently Freudian or Jungian. That strategy, in a nutshell: find the neglected and wounded child within and then give to that inner child the unconditional love that was withheld by the parent.

C. The Scientific Basis

So, let's look more closely at the science of Freud. There is a theoretical framework -- an hypothesis derived from empirical observations of behavior in clinical practice. This theoretical framework describes an interplay between the conscious and unconscious forces of the mind under the influence of external factors. These works both forward and backward in time. This early influence will produce adult behaviors. This adult behavior is the result of that early influence.

As a model the theory can be subjected to controlled experimental tests or clinical study. As a model which posits cause and effect correlations, it provides mechanisms for different outcomes. In other words the model can be falsified -- the fundamental criterion for any respectable scientific model. For example, changing early influences should change mature outcomes. Alternately, if it is possible to undo damage done by those early influences, negative mature outcomes might be reversed. This is the basis for psychotherapeutic analysis.

How successful then is Freud's paradigm as science?

Well, there seems to be very little evidence adult personality is affected by early childhood experience at all. There are adult personality traits which fit nicely into the Freudian categories: oral, anal, genital or oedipal. But the critical link between childhood cause and adult effect is very difficult to prove in any of the many clinical attempts that have attempted to do so.

It's not for lack of trying. But most attempts to derive conclusive scientific evidence for these claims have been negative. As Torrey reviews, one of the largest attempts to show these connections was a study begun in 1929. A total of 650 children were closely followed from birth to age 18. It found that genetic influences were far more important than early experiences.

Take toilet training. Why pick that? It's easier to study and the consequences are most clearly defined. According to Freud if toilet training was too early, too late, too strict, or too libidinous, dire consequences would result. These ranged from avarice, rage, homosexuality, paranoia, to chronic constipation. Well? Is it so? From a total of 26 published studies on the influence of toilet training and adult personality traits since 1929 none of the studies has established any correlation at all. The only meaningful finding was an association between childhood personality and parental personality--suggesting an influence of genetics.

Twin studies done more recently have and do show that genetics is a powerful predictor of adult personality, its influence accounting for as much as 50 percent of the way we are. What about of the other 50 percent--the non-genetic influences? Do early childhood experiences have any role here? If they do, they need to be separated out from birth trauma, accidents, peer pressure, school experiences, and culture. Attempts to do that show at best that Freud may have been right at most 5 percent of the time.

Other attempts to show associations between oral, genital and Oedipal personality traits and childhood experiences have been equally disappointing to proponents of the Freudian position and Oedipal personality traits and childhood experiences have been equally disappointing to proponents of the Freudian position.

Given that these crucial claims which form the basis of the psychoanalytic component of the Freudian paradigm have not withstood the test of science, where does that leave us? It seems we have misunderstood who we are and why we are the way we are. This paradigm has had enormous influence in our private and public life. Our schools, our universities, our courts, our culture and our personal space has been radically shaped by a psychoanalytic perspective that evidence suggests may be more mythology than fact.

D. Consequences

It takes time to digest this, but two observations come to mind. The core of Freud's approach rests on the assertion that personal happiness, the pleasure principle, is the greatest good: What decides the purpose of life is simply the programme of the pleasure principle. This assertion has given rise to a cult of narcissism, the belief that it is me who comes first. Narcissism is equivalent to a new moral injunction: Love thyself--and then thy neighbour. How much of the modern malaise be attributed to this? Would it make a difference if more of us reached out to others rather that forever reaching inside for the source of our own discontent?

The Freudian belief that we are governed in our actions by powerful unconscious forces has shifted modern perspectives away from personal responsibility. I am who I am and I do what I do not because of me but because of early experiences over which I had no control. I am not responsible for my actions -- my mother is.

This belief too has done damage in our culture in its attitude towards women. Women, as mothers and as the primary caregivers in our culture, have had enormous anger directed towards them as architects and perpetrators of misdirected early childhood experience.

E. Conclusion

Is Freud important? Enormously so. His views have shaped our century perhaps more so than any other. Are Freud's perspectives right? In one important respect -- the relationship between early experience and adult behavior -- scientific evidence, as persuasively documented by Torrey is accumulating that that Freud was off the mark. Does that invalidate the Freudian project? Not at all! We may indeed be governed by the Pleasure principle. Freud's analysis of suffering and the strategies we use to avoid suffering are compelling. His ideas on sublimation and the displacement of instincts towards art and music are illuminating, as are his notions that aesthetics and beauty are aim-inhibited, that religions can be seen as mass delusions, that technologies have not increased human happiness.

But, the science underlying Freud's root psychoanalytic theories are under fire. This casts some doubt on the more global claim that sees human civilization as a struggle between Eros and Thanatos. Something like the shift in psychoanalytic gestalt which Kuhn speaks of in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, may now be under way. Whether the new gestalt will be less narcissistic, and more optimistic remains to be seen.

Books from Alibris: Sigmund Freud


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