Updating Freud

Mary Midgley

  • Narcissus and Oedipus: The Children of Psychoanalysis by Victoria Hamilton
    Routledge, 284 pp, £12.50, April 1982, ISBN 0 7100 0869 4
  • Archetype: A Natural History of the Self by Anthony Stevens
    Routledge, 295 pp, £12.50, April 1982, ISBN 0 7100 0980 1
  • Freud on Femininity and Faith by Judith van Herik
    California, 216 pp, £17.50, June 1982, ISBN 0 520 04368 5

If Freud were now – much against his principles – to poke his head out of the tomb and look in on us, what would he say? The appalling state of the world would of course not surprise him. But what about his own therapeutic and theoretical empire? He need scarcely be disappointed at its size, or at the number of his entries in indexes. He would still find himself named as prime mover of the movement he fought so hard to keep under his own control. But one thing which would sharply hurt him would be the widespread determination of modern scientists to keep him out of their province. Here he would be justified. His scientific reputation has fallen a victim to a highly confused defensive attempt by scientists to narrow and consolidate their own empire. It is impossible to limit the word ‘science’, as theorists have wildly hoped, to the experimental collecting of detailed facts – still more so, of course, to that of purely negative facts. Science has to include the background conceptual schemes within which those experiments were conceived and selected, and through which their results will be interpreted. It is only because physical scientists are often unconscious of these schemes, and take them for granted like the air they breathe, that this was ever overlooked. In psychology, where getting the conceptual scheme right is half the battle, nobody ought to overlook it. Once it is seen, Freud’s scientific standing becomes clear. He wanted a scheme which would map something real and important enough: namely, the relation between human motives. He wanted it in order to grasp more fully what is happening when they go radically wrong. He rightly thought that the everyday approach to this problem – though incredibly rich in some areas – was patchy, and blurred by a good deal of self-deception. He asked: what is the general structure and connection of human motives, including the unconscious as well as the conscious part of them? There is nothing wrong with this question, any more than with Darwin’s about the Origin of Species. Both ask for very general causal and structural maps. Without such maps, science cannot start. But it must also continually improve the maps as it goes on. How good were Freud’s methods and his answers?

This is where criticism is needed. It was long delayed by the bitter disputes which arose among the pioneers of the psychoanalytic movement. Today, however, it can be made with much less passion, and the directions it is taking seem hopeful. All these books contain excellent chunks of this criticism, and all roughly agree on its four most general components.

1. Freud’s theory is not plausible evolutionarily. The controlling place which he gave to sex over other motives is bizarre and unexplained as an adaptation. Ethological evidence makes it look odder and odder. Many motives which Freud took to be only secondary offshoots produced by sexual repression – motives such as curiosity, anxiety, aesthetic interest – appear freely in animals, without repression, as independent motives with no sexual context. Thus, though there may well be a constant mutual influence between the motives, there can scarcely be a monolithic empire of the kind Freud proposed.

2. Freud is ahistorical. In spite of his real interest in history and archaeology, he treated the society of his day and city as a human norm. When he considered the life of ‘primitive peoples’, past or present, he was incurious and inclined simply to project his dominant fantasies. He thus missed many opportunities for correcting personal biases. His medical status increased this tendency, since it made it extremely hard for his patients to correct him.

3. His approach to symbolism was narrow and arbitrary. The sexual meanings he found may indeed often have been present. But that was no reason to ignore other, non-sexual meanings. The human power of using and reading symbols is immensely rich and versatile. We distort it fatally if we insist on receiving only one kind of message.

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