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Giving Freud a Decent Burial9/10/2007 17:05:34
In the last few days I've had two graduate student friends independently describe projects they are planning that take Sigmund Freud's writing as a central theoretical component, especially Civilization and Its Discontents. Both are generally in the sphere of English departments. From what I hear about what they are up to, the general projects sound very neat. But in recent months I've come to have strong reservations about the thoroughgoing reliance on Freud as a source of reliable theory. I haven't yet figured out a concise way to express these reservations, so the following is an attempt to try doing so. I strongly welcome replies. My major reason for writing this is to ask my Freudian friends to clarify and defend their use of him.
It has been quite some time since Freud's writings have been taken at face value in their home discipline, psychology. The success record of classical Freudian therapy shows little promise, while the time and expense that it requires is usually prohibitive for all but the very wealthy and very bored. In its place, psychologists have spent decades developing techniques that can be more carefully tested. These techniques, in turn, can be grounded in the fuller understanding of human mental processes being developed in laboratory research. Though there are problems enough with laboratory psychological methods and any claims for completeness in the psychological project, but at their core is a basic humility: people are fallible, so evidence should be sought for every claim, and the evidence should be interpreted according to consistent, reliable methods.
Psychoanalysis does not operate this way. What is sought, most of all, is the erotics of theory: an imaginative schema that is coherent and consistent, grounded, if at all, in the interpretation of anecdotes by a recognized master. This method comes far closer to mythology (as Bruce Lincoln defines is, ideology in narrative form). The sign of a good theory is the cohesion and inspiration of the theory, not whether its mechanisms correspond to realities or whether it can be used to predict. The data is responsible to the theory, not the theory to the data. It a patient doesn't accept the psychoanalysts' theories, I've heard it said, they declare him delusional and repressed until he does.
One alternative to Freud that I am familiar with as a scholar of religion is Lee Kirkpatrick's work on religion and attachment theory. Kirkpatrick's ideas somewhat resemble Freud's Oedipal account of religion, connecting relationships with divinity with parental, protective relationships. But attachment theory, beginning in the 50s and 60s, has been the subject of extensive laboratory and theoretical examination by a whole community of scientists. It is tested against the evidence, not imposed upon the evidence.
Those scholars, mainly in the humanities, who depend on Freud and his psychoanalytic successors like Lacan, have a lot to gain by being more attentive to work being done in contemporary sciences. (Brian Boyd made this point in a recent American Scholar article. Want to understand power? Read Foucault and his ilk, but also read Frans de Waal's accessible work on primate societies. Want to understand language? Cognitive science is where the exciting work is happening. Or aggression? See the growing ethological and neuroscientific literature. Gift and exchange? Economists have a great deal to offer. The list goes on. Meanwhile, scientists can gain from this exchange through humanists' insights into the meaning and consequences of their work, as well as the data that humanistic scholars can provide.
Freud was a scientist, and he meant his works to be scientific. But the mind sciences in his day had far less to go on than they do know. I suspect, actually, that he would encourage that they be read in dialog with the latest and best science, not apart from it.
Unfortunately, graduate students in culture-studies departments (including much of my own religious studies department) see no scientific training in the course of their education. We need not be trained to be experimental scientists, though some experience with experimental methods at the university level can't hurt. We do, however, need to learn how to be attentive to the channels of science. We need to be able to read non-technical but in-depth science writing. We need to be aware of the contours of scientific debates that touch on our areas of interest. Really, the problem is not so much one of training but of encouragement from our teachers, who seem comfortable enough critiquing science (if even that) without bothering to learn from it.
Detaching from loyalty to Freud and the rest, though, is not enough. They need a decent burial. Freud's contributions, as they are reformulated and eclipsed with more reliable methods, need to be kept and studied as part of the history of the discourse-matrix about what it is like to be human. Before long, perhaps, today's scientific theories will go a similar way. Burial does not mean total disuse, I should add. Newton's theory of gravitation was thoroughly revised and replaced by Einstein's relativity, but we still use Newton's equations for the circumstances that they apply to. Very likely, Freudian concepts like "Oedipus complex" and "Freudian slips" will stay in circulation. Freud has contributed eternally to the way people understand themselves, as shown in works like Philip Rieff's Triumph of the Therapeutic and the recent BBC documentary The Century of the Self. Recognizing the importance of work like his is part and parcel of developing a responsible evaluation of it.
In the face of what science today is capable of, one can do better than rely on Freud, or most other humanistic theorists who disregard the current human sciences. The "civilization" that Freud wrote about, it is clear now, is a mythological construction, not a scientific term. We have the tools to be more precise. The instincts are better charted with neurological equipment that was unavailable in Freud's Vienna, and it is clear they cannot be reduced to death drives and pleasure principles. Those are descriptive abstractions, not explanations. The explanations we can offer today are humbler and often more complex, but they do seem to work. They do seem to capture what is subtler than the obvious. In his teachings on the subconscious, it was Freud who taught many of us that are minds and selves are not quite what they appear. It is time we take his advice, and even further than he did or could.
re: Giving Freud a Decent Burial - 9/20/2007 12:12:35
re: Giving Freud a Decent Burial - 9/20/2007 23:05:32