Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Interpreting Freud's Dreams 

Fall 2000

Freud and the Question of Pseudoscience by Frank Cioffi (Open Court, 1998, ix + 313 pgs.)

The validity of Freud's theories seems at first sight far removed from the usual concerns of The Mises Review. In fact, it is not. Freud mounted a strong attack on morality and tradition. If, as Freud believed, conscience arises through irrational and bizarre unconscious processes, what grounds have we to pay heed to its dictates?

Why respect the rights of others, if moral obligation results from repression? But, it may be said, does not our series of questions rest on a common mistake? Freud's account of the genesis of morality did not aim to alter or abolish it. Quite the contrary, Freud strictly confined himself to science. Unlike Marx, he aimed to understand the world, not to change it.

As Frank Cioffi shows in his devastating criticism of Freud, this is but one of many myths propagated by the Master or his acolytes. In fact, Freud sometimes did preach the "sexual liberation" that popular belief associates with his name. In his 1910 paper "Wild Psychoanalysis," Freud did not unequivocally, as the psychoanalyst Nathan Hale[!] avers, "issue a warning against wild psychoanalysis-the prescription of sexual intercourse for the relief of neurosis" (p. 41, quoting Hale). Freud said in that very paper that "the advice to seek sexual gratification `often . . . led to good results'" (p. 41, quoting Freud).

Those who fear (or hope) that Freud wished to undermine traditional morality, then, are not altogether imagining things. And as far as religion is concerned, Freud's revolutionary intent is entirely evident. To him, religious belief is altogether irrational.

Freud condemns religion in strong terms: "If ever there was a case of a lame excuse we have it here. Ignorance is ignorance; no right to believe anything can be derived from it. . . . Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanor" (S. Freud, The Future of an Illusion, Norton, 1961, p. 32). He looked forward to a time when people would reject "the fairy tales of religion."

Those favorable to traditional values have every reason to pay careful attention to the claims of psychoanalysis. A preliminary difficulty confronts any attempt to do so. Before we can evaluate psychoanalysis, we must know what it claims. But nowhere does Freud set out clearly the tenets that officially constitute his system of therapy.

Of course, we can consult Freud's books and papers. But should we there locate some enormity, we will be told that it was merely advanced as speculation and is not part of the creed. When Freud tells us in Moses and Monotheism, e.g., that the Hebrews of Exodus killed the Egyptian Moses, how is this to be taken? Must one accept this farrago in order to be an analyst in good standing?

Professor Cioffi does not solve our problem by providing his own list of canonical Freudian dogmas. He does however subject to withering criticism an aspect of psychoanalysis universally accepted as central to the theory: the Oedipus complex. According to this part of Freudian doctrine, boys at an early age sexually desire their mothers. Because they fear castration by their fathers as retribution for these wishes, they repress their desires. From their place in the unconscious, the desires that constitute the complex powerfully affect personality development. (And Freud has the gall to call religion a fairy tale!)

Professor Cioffi locates in this theory a crucial weakness. Boys repress their sexual desires, it is claimed, because of fears of castration. But "[c]astration threats are far from universal and when they are made they are not linked to the child's erotic feelings for his mother. So why does he make this connection?" (p. 45). If it is contended that the infant makes the association because he is ashamed of his fantasies, why assume this? "I believe that only two commentators have noted the anachronism involved in imputing to an infant the incest horror which is a product of culture, Voloshinov and G.K. Chesterton" (p. 46).

I think that Cioffi ought to have dealt at this point with claims, advanced by sociobiologists like E.O. Wilson, that aversion from incest is innate. But such claims do not help Freud: if the aversion is built into our genes, what need have we of Freud's saga?

Even if we dismiss doubts about the internal coherence of the Oedipus complex, we have so far not been given reason to accept the theory. In part, Freud based the theory on the results of his own self_analysis; but Professor Cioffi finds Freud's account unconvincing.

"At the time when he [Freud] imputed infantile incestuous feelings to himself he was a self_diagnosed hysteric. Might that not be a sufficient explanation of his infantile desire for his mother without the need to invoke a universal incestuous propensity" (p. 45)?

The pattern Cioffi finds in the Oedipus complex, an implausible hypothesis backed up by inadequate evidence, recurs throughout the Freudian edifice. The most basic and general concept in all of psychoanalysis is the unconscious mind. Our author does not reject the notion of the unconscious in toto, but he brings to light the bizarre lengths to which Freud carried his theory. For one thing, the unconscious in his view can carry out astonishingly complex feats of reasoning. "Freud freely acknowledged his inferiority to his unconscious in performing arithmetic calculations or aiming accurately. Freud also informs us that apparently clumsy movements can be most cunningly used for sexual purposes. One such which he relates `was accomplished with the dexterity of a conjuror'" (p. 96).

As if this were not enough, Freud also believed that the unconscious can cause organic illnesses. Because this was eccentric, even by Freud's lax standards, he only hinted at this medical unorthodoxy.

A Freudian might respond to what has been said thus far that however odd one may find the theory, it is well supported by evidence. But exactly this is what our author is most concerned to deny. Freudian theory is pseudoscientific, Cioffi claims, because whatever occurs is taken to be confirming evidence. If, say, a patient is told that certain behavior manifests his Oedipus complex, he may respond by accepting the interpretation. If so, his agreement is taken as confirmatory. But if the patient rejects the theory, that also counts as evidence for its truth. Here the patient's resistance shows Freud's view correct.

For Cioffi the key point is not that psychoanalysts stick to their theory in the face of falsifying evidence. Often scientists retain a well_confirmed theory that, for the moment, cannot cope with anomalies. Rather, once again, the problem is that, by Freudian "logic," the theory can only be confirmed, whatever happens.

Our author has a yet more extreme complaint against Freud. Much of the fame of psychoanalysis rests on Freud's intricate account of a few famous case histories: Little Hans, Dora, the Rat Man, and the Wolf Man, are, to Freudian adepts, names to conjure with. Professor Cioffi offers strong evidence that Freud deliberately misled his readers about these cases and other matters.

One example must here suffice. Freud claims that he arrived at his seduction theory with great reluctance. Only after a number of patients of their own volition told tales of sexual abuse did Freud give the theory credence.

Cioffi is able to show from earlier statements Freud made that he himself suggested the theory to his patients: he did not derive it from them. And if we cannot trust Freud's honesty and accuracy as an observer, the persuasive force of psychoanalysis evaporates.


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