The American literary critic Frederick Crews explains why he has rejected Freud

How is it possible to pass so quickly from being an advocate of applied psychoanalysis to being an antagonist of the entire Freudian movement?

I wish that process had happened more quickly in my case. It actually look about twelve years – time enough to become disillusioned by misgivings I had always harboured, but had preferred not to weigh very heavily. I found myself gradually obliged, by critiques I couldn’t ignore, to shift the balance between the enticing features of psychoanalysis and unanswerable doubts about it.

What doubts?

Even my earliest published remarks on the subject granted that the empirical credentials of psychoanalysis are drastically weak. Well, that turns out to be something more than a passing concession or an inconvenience! If a purported science, or indeed any secular discipline, can’t satisfactorily lay out the grounds on which outsiders should accept its propositions, that should prove by itself to be an eventually terminal defect. Its most serious consequences will be felt within the discipline, for theorists will not be able to settle their differences on a reasoned basis. Hence the telltale history of the psychoanalytic movement thus far – a history of conceptual muddle, patchwork reform, excommunications and schisms, with an unending proliferation of competing chieftains, each one saying in effect: après le déluge, moi!

But surely psychoanalysts would dispute your statement that their claims are not demonstrable?

Many would dispute it. The question is: could they refute it? Let’s separately review the claims made for psychoanalytic therapy and those made for the Freudian theory of mind. Comparisons between the ‘success rates’ of various therapies can never be entirely accurate, but the best recent studies strongly suggest that psychoanalysis does no better – and probably no worse – than any of the other 200-plus competing psychotherapies. Some earlier studies indicate a much less favourable comparison, but they are open to challenge. And to avoid needless controversy, let’s also set aside the studies indicating that behavioural therapy is clearly superior to any psychotherapy, or ‘talking cure’, in treating certain disorders. Accepting only the least damning results, we find that they flatly contradict the unique therapeutic claims to which psychoanalysis has always pretended – claims of superior efficacy based on the rooting out of pathogenic causes, not of mere symptoms, and on the re-ordering of the patient’s whole personality.

Those claims are essential to psychoanalysis for two reasons. First, if they are false, analysts lack the only imaginable justification for steering patients into the most time-consuming and expensive of all therapies. And second, Freudians have generally maintained that their patients’ recoveries validate the accuracy of the causal reconstructions that those patients were persuaded to accept in the course of their treatment. Such validation may or may not be of interest to the cured patient, but it is vital to analysts themselves in providing evidence that their concepts fit well with psychic reality. Thus the supposedly unmatchable success of the therapy has been crucially involved in supporting the theory and its clinical applications against charges of arbitrariness.

But if the patients of some two hundred other psychotherapies recover at approximately the same rate of success as the Freudian ones do, that source of support counts for nothing. The conclusion seems inescapable that all those talking cures, including psychoanalysis, are in the same boat. Their unique and mutually exclusive causal claims are at once factually dubious and placebogenically useful, in that it is fortifying, after all, for a patient to have something to believe in. That initiation into a system of thought, however fanciful, is probably one among several factors that make any psychotherapy superior to no treatment at all.

Whether it is altogether ethical for the therapists to go on maintaining their unique curative pretensions is another matter. In the case of psychoanalysis, it seems a rather questionable practice to charge, say, $80,000 over a five-year period for the purpose of unearthing ‘repressed memories’ and grievances from early childhood, when the patient’s chances of recovery at a much earlier date would apparently be about the same with any simpler regimen that made no mention of those alleged pathogens.

Now let me address the claims of Freudian theory, which, as I explained, can’t rest on the uniquely successful results of the therapy, for no such results have been sustained. Where else might those claims lie? Analytic theorists have adduced three other sources of validation – each of them patently vulnerable to a neutralising criticism. First, there is ‘clinical insight’. Whether or not a patient improves, analysts maintain that they can confirm or disconfirm their immediate interpretations – thus vindicating the applicability of their general theory – by observing how the patient responds to those interpretations through emotionally-tinged language, gestures, ‘free associations’, slips of the tongue and subsequent dreams. Unfortunately, the constructions placed on all those phenomena suffer from a dubious reliance on the very theory that is supposedly being validated. The analysts’ rules for confirming their hunches, furthermore, are so loose that the very same utterance or reported dream element can be taken to mean one thing, its opposite, or something quite different. Nor, as Freud’s early friend Wilhelm Fliess bluntly told him, can analysts show that their sources of evidence are undistorted by suggestion. Even dreams, as is well-known, take on a ‘Freudian’, ‘Jungian’ or other thematic character according to the therapeutic doctrine to which the dreamer has been recently introduced. In sum, clinical insight is just as unavailing as therapeutic success for the justification of Freudian psychology.

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