He’s been dead for nearly 70 years, but Sigmund Freud’s provocative theories are still a huge part of psychology, neuroscience, and culture — this despite the fact that many of his ideas were mindboggingly, catastrophically wrong. Here’s why Freud just won’t go away.
Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Sigmund Freud was a giant in his field. When it comes to his influence on psychology, psychoanalysis, and our theories of mind, he’s often credited for kindling a revolution; with Freud, it’s kind of a before-and-after thing.
Indeed, the 20th century has often been called Freud’s century. His books landed with the subtlety of hand grenades, featuring such seminal titles as The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), and his Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1915-1916).
Freud’s legacy has transcended science, with his ideas permeating deep into Western culture. Rarely does a day go by where we don’t find ourselves uttering a term drawn from his work: Mommy and daddy issues. Arrested development. Death wishes. Freudian slips. Phallic symbols. Anal retentiveness. Defense mechanisms. Cathartic release. And on and on and on.
As psychologist and Freud critic John Kihlstrom himself admits, “More than Einstein or Watson and Crick, more than Hitler or Lenin, Roosevelt or Kennedy, more than Picasso, Eliot, or Stravinsky, more than the Beatles or Bob Dylan, Freud's influence on modern culture has been profound and long-lasting.”
But his legacy is a shaky one. Freud has, for the most part, fallen completely out of favor in academia. Virtually no institution in any discipline would dare use him as a credible source. In 1996, Psychological Science reached the conclusion that “[T]here is literally nothing to be said, scientifically or therapeutically, to the advantage of the entire Freudian system or any of its component dogmas." As a research paradigm, it’s pretty much dead.
Many of Freud’s methodologies, techniques, and conclusions have been put into question. Moreover, his theories have even proved damaging — and even dangerous — to certain segments of the population. His perspectives on female sexuality and homosexuality are reviled, causing many feminists to refer to him by a different kind of ‘F’ word. Some even argue that his name should be spelled “Fraud” and not Freud.
“Freud is truly in a class of his own,” writes Todd Dufresne, an outspoken critic. “Arguably no other notable figure in history was so fantastically wrong about nearly every important thing he had to say. But, luckily for him, academics have been — and still are — infinitely creative in their efforts to whitewash his errors, even as lay readers grow increasingly dumbfounded by the entire mess.”
Without a doubt, many of these criticisms and valid and totally justified. But a renewed look at his legacy shows that Freud’s contribution is far from over — both in terms of his influence on culture and science.
Yes, even for a guy who died in 1939, his work is incredibly out of date. We’ve learned much about the human brain and the way our psychologies work since that time — but he got the ball rolling. Much of today’s work is still predicated on many of his original insights. Some areas of inquiry have been refined and expanded, while others abandoned and dismissed altogether in favor of new theories. This is good. This is how science advances.
Before we take a look at where Freud was right, let’s consider where he went wrong.
The primary trouble with Freud is that, while his ideas appear intriguing and even common sensical, there’s very little empirical evidence to back them up. Modern psychology has produced very little to substantiate many of his claims.
For instance, there’s no scientific evidence in support of the idea that boys lust after their mothers and hate their fathers. He was totally, utterly wrong about gender. And his notion of “penis envy” is now both laughable and tragic.
There’s no proof of the id, ego, or superego. There’s also no evidence to support the notion that human development proceeds through oral, anal, phallic, and genital stages. Nor that the interference, or arresting, of these stages leads to specific developmental manifestations.
For example, he theorized that homosexuality was a failure to reconcile the anal phase, or the Oedipal phase. Which is nonsense. He also argued that only “mature” women could orgasm from vaginal sex, and that women who could only climax via clitoral stimulation were somehow stunted, stuck at a latent phase. Again, nonsense.
Indeed, as feminist Lili Hsieh points out, he had some very strange ideas about gender and sexuality:
Much of the critique of psychoanalysis as phallocentric or heterosexist is tied to the unfortunate conflation of femininity and sexuality; therefore, it is important to review the slippage in Freud's theory between femininity as the repertoire of sexed life and that as the logical complementarity to the universal sexuality. Freud's view of femininity leans predominantly toward the latter, as he decides in his early theorization that there is only one kind of libido, i.e., the masculine one. By masculinity of the libido, Freud means mainly activity, hence he equates femininity with passivity.
Although boys are caught in the constant threat of castration, girls on the other hand are in this sense already castrated, and thus are faced with an irreparable damage — ‘they feel seriously wronged … and fall victim to “envy for the penis”’...Freud suggests that for women there are two possible ways out of penis envy — besides the more strenuous ways such as neurosis or ‘masculinity complex’ — one of them is a ‘capacity to carry on an intellectual profession’...the other is having a baby. Both are thus substitutes for the penis.
There’s also no evidence that Freudian psychotherapy (including psychoanalysis and “free association”) is any better than others, including Skinnerian behavioral therapy (which is diametrically opposed to Freudianism in terms of methodology), systematic desensitization, or assertiveness training.
Okay, sure, Freud’s got some problems. But he also nailed a few things.
For example, Freud was startlingly correct in his assertion that we are not masters of our own mind. He showed that human experience, thought, and deeds are determined not by our conscious rationality, but by irrational forces outside our conscious awareness and control — forces that could be understood and controlled by an extensive therapeutic process he called psychoanalysis.
Freud didn’t discover the unconscious mind, of course. That distinction goes to French psychiatrist Pierre Janet. Freud was also influenced by his professor Jean Martin Charcot, a famed neurologist who dabbled in hypnosis. But it was Freud who took the concept to the next level by breaking it down even further — and by applying it to psychotherapy and “free associating,” where patients would openly talk about their feelings and experiences regardless of how irrelevant, absurd, or upsetting it sounded.
Today, very few would argue against the idea of the unconscious mind. Freud’s claim for the central role of the unconscious mind in human actions was recently explored by experimental psychologists in a collection of essays called Frontiers of Consciousness.
For sure, we now know that the unconscious brain doesn’t exist or function in the way that Freud suggested — but we know it does in fact exist. The brain performs a myriad number of tasks in the background, particularly in managing our autonomous bodily processes, the way it affects our conscious, cognitive functioning, and how we interpret our surroundings.
“He says human beings can keep no secrets,” says Michael Roth, an expert on Freud. “They reveal their innermost selves with their clothes, with their twitches, with their unconscious mannerisms; that whatever we do, we're expressing things about ourselves, for people who have eyes to see and ears to hear. And I think that this is really the fundamental orientation of Freud.”
Another astounding revelation offered by Freud is the idea that the brain can be compartmentalized. Brain function, both in terms of its biology and the emergent mind, can be broken down into individual parts. His take on this, of course, was incredibly primitive. Freud spoke of the ego, id, and superego — ideas we don’t really accept any more.
But his larger idea has gone to influence such thinkers as the cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky, who talks about the society of mind, and philosopher of mind Daniel Dennett, who argues on behalf of the idea that there are multiple models of consciousness working in parallel.
Freud’s take on memories continues to be interesting — particularly suppressed memories. We now know that memories are selective, and that they’re constantly being rewritten each time they’re recalled. People retain memories of events not as they happened, but rather in the way they are active when memories are being reformed.
And Freud's take on defense mechanisms still holds relevance. Few people, including psychologists, would deny that we all too regularly employ such defenses as denial, repression, projection, intellectualization, and rationalization. The same can be said for his ideas on transference and catharsis.
What’s more, as regards Oedipal and Electra issues, few would deny that there’s at least some modicum of truth to the idea that many of us carry so-called mommy and daddy issues. Human psychology is a very complex and fuzzy thing, and it’s not always easy for science to definitively prove or compartmentalize something that just feels right.
And though we no longer subscribe to Freudian dream interpretation, some of our dreams are so blatantly driven by our conscious and subconscious desires and fears that it’s obvious Freud was onto something. To deny this would be hallucinatory, ludicrous — and completely unfair to his legacy.
It’s also important to keep some of his ideas in context.
Take his views on homosexuality, for example. Though many critics are loathe to admit it, he was actually very progressive for his time. Unlike most of his peers, Freud believed that homosexuality resulted from arrested development — but he refused to characterize it as an illness, and did not believe that it should be criminalized.
In a letter written to an American mother who asked him for advice about her son’s homosexuality, Freud wrote:
Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function produced by a certain arrest of sexual development. Many highly respectable individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest among them (Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc.). It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime, and cruelty too.
As for Freudian psychotherapy, it lives on — but barely. These days, only 1 in about 20,000 Americans still use it. But that’s not to imply it doesn’t work, or that it’s not valued by those who depend on it. Elyn Saks, a law professor who suffers from schizophrenia, says that without it, her mental health would be seriously compromised.
It’s also important to remember that we live in the age of Prozac; it’s much easier to send a patient home with a bottle of pills than to talk things out.
It’s also important to remember that psychoanalysis is not about making patients normal, or even about curing them. Rather it’s about revealing deeper insights into a person’s psyche. Then, armed with that information, they can make desired changes. It’s as the old adage says, “Know thyself.”
Psychologist Drew Westen describes his experience with psychotherapy:
People do sometimes describe feelings or behaviors in therapy that conform remarkably to aspects of Freud's psychosexual theories (such as a patient of mine with erectile problems whose associations to a sexual encounter led to an image of having sex with his mother, followed by some unpleasant anal imagery). Nevertheless, psychotherapists who rely on theories derived from Freud do not typically spend their time lying in wait for phallic symbols. They pay attention to sexuality, because it is an important part of human life and intimate relationships and one that is often filled with conflict.
In summation, Westen says there are five broad areas in which the work of Sigmund Freud remains relevant to psychology: the existence of unconscious mental processes, the importance of conflict and ambivalence in behavior, the childhood origins of adult personality, mental representations as a mediator of social behavior, and stages of psychological development.
[Sources not cited: “Is Freud Still Alive? No, Not Really,”John Kihlstrom; “The Scientific Legacy of Sigmund Freud,” Drew Westen; “Psychoanalysis Is Dead ... So How Does That Make You Feel?,” Todd Dufresne; “Freud: He Wasn’t All Wrong,” Robert Matthews; Finding Out, Meem et al.]