Although some of his theories are still hotly debated, Sigmund Freud, (May 6, 1856–September 23, 1939) is widely regarded as a trailblazer in the realm of psychiatry and psychology. The Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist, who was allegedly the first to offer a comprehensive explanation of how human behavior is determined by the conscious and unconscious forces, is regarded as the founder of psychoanalysis.
Philosopher and psychoanalyst Joel Whitebook is the former Director of Columbia University’s Psychoanalytic Studies Program. He is the author of Freud, An Intellectual Biography.
Simply Charly: You recently published a book on Sigmund Freud titled Freud: An Intellectual Biography. What was your reason for adding yet another book to the already healthy pile of excellent biographies on Freud?
Joel Whitebook: An obvious question, and one I asked myself. Indeed, when I was invited to write the study for Cambridge University Press, the first thought that occurred to me was, “Does the world need another biography of Sigmund Freud?”
Though I had been teaching and writing about Freud for the better part of three decades, I hadn’t undertaken a systematic reading of The Standard Edition since I was a graduate student and psychoanalytic candidate. Likewise, I had regularly perused the biographical publications and the contributions from the relatively new field of Freud Studies that had emerged during that period, but I hadn’t systematically followed them.
I, therefore, undertook a thorough re-reading of Freud’s texts. When I did, something virtually leaped off the page: the absence of the mother. The figure of the mother—especially the early pre-Oedipal mother—is largely missing from Freud’s self-analysis, his case histories, which constitute a series of polemics attempting to demonstrate the centrality of “the father complex,” his theory of development, and his thoroughly patriarchal theories of religion and civilization.
Moreover, the fact of the missing mother is if not entirely ignored, at least radically marginalized in Ernest Jones and Peter Gay’s standard biographies. Why this is the case is something that I had to examine in my study. And that it is the case meant that a new biography was in order.
I do not mean to imply that the figure of the mother is absent from Freud’s thinking. On the contrary, as the feminist literary theorist Madelon Sprengnether has observed, she is everywhere and nowhere, haunting his works like a “ghost.” One of the central tasks of my investigations was, therefore, to draw the missing mother out of the interstices and shadows of Freud’s thinking and to analyze her significance for his life and work.
Once the fact of the missing mother became apparent, another task immediately presented itself, namely, to account for her absence. Here the more recent biographical literature and historical research in Freud Studies proved enormously helpful. Much of it focused on the first three years of Freud’s life in Freiberg before the family moved to Vienna, a period that had received inadequate attention. And, most importantly, the new material tended to contradict the received narrative of Freud’s early life—a narrative that had originally been promulgated by Freud himself, and was largely taken over by his insufficiently critical followers. Whereas Freud presented an idealized picture of his early experience in the Moravian town—and especially of his relationship with his beautiful young mother, who called him “my golden Sigy”—it turns out that his first three years, especially his relationship with his mother, were quite traumatic. My thesis is that the way he dealt with that trauma, namely, through denial, splitting, and becoming “a premature adult,” helps to explain not only the fact of the missing mother, but also many of the features of his personality and of his theory.
SC: Your book’s jacket description says that you offer a “radically new portrait of the creator of psychoanalysis” by “taking into account recent developments in psychoanalytic theory and practice, gender studies, philosophy, cultural theory, and more.” Can you elaborate? Which sources were the most helpful in your research for your book?
JW: My claim that I have offered a “radically new portrait” of Freud rests in part on the fact that I have placed the topic of the missing mother at the center of my investigation and have analyzed the consequences of that absence for his life and work.
In this regard, I have drawn extensively on the pre-Oedipal turn in psychoanalysis. After Freud’s death, psychoanalytic attention, in fact, tended to shift away from the father and the Oedipus complex to the mother and the pre-Oedipal stages of development—which are concerned with the separation-individuation process and the formation of the self. Melanie Klein, D.W. Winnicott, Heinz Kohut, and Margaret Mahler are among the major figures in this context. The shift was partly motivated by the difficulties analysts were encountering treating so-called non-classical patients, that is, individuals suffering from pathologies of the self that have their genesis in early traumas. The rise of infant research and, later, the rapprochement between psychoanalysis also contributed to the pre-Oedipal turn.
For obvious reasons, the pre-Oedipal turn in psychoanalysis often dovetailed with the feminist critique of the field. That is, a turn to the mother was a natural consequence of the feminists’ critique of the patriarchal biases in Freud’s thinking.
I am a philosopher as well as a psychoanalyst, and my philosophical orientation is that of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School—which, it should be noted, was the first philosophical school to incorporate Freud into its thinking. I drew on their theory of the Enlightenment to counter to postmodern attempt to dismiss Freud as an Enlightenment thinker simpliciter. I agree with the postmodernists that there is much to criticize in the eighteenth century “Kantian” version of the Enlightenment, which is overly rationalist and overly Whiggish. I argue, however, that Freud belonged to a later more disillusioned stage of that intellectual movement, which is less rationalist and optimistic: that is, to “the Dark Enlightenment.”
These are some of the sources I drew on in my research: Theoretically, my thinking is indebted to the work of Hans Loewald, Cornelius Castoriadis, Paul Ricoeur, and André Green. Madelon Sprengnether’s The Spectral Mother played an essential role in helping me formulate my thesis. In my opinion, Ana-Maria Rizzuto’s Why Did Freud Reject God? provides the best account of Freud’s early years. Didier Anzieu’s Freud’s Self-Analysis was indispensable, as was Max Schur’s Freud: Living and Dying, which is an informative and deeply humane work. Peter Homan’s The Ability to Mourn is an excellent study that doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. Though I disagree with his position, Yosef Hiyam Yerushalmi’s Freud’s Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable is a rich resource for trying to understand Freud’s relation to Judaism. Finally, as his daughter Anna observed, if one really wants to get to know Freud, one should read his marvelous letters.
SC: Sigmund Freud is regarded as the father of psychoanalysis, and allegedly the first person to explain how our behavior is determined by the unconscious—“that shadowy basement of the mind that is inaccessible to rational thought, but which nevertheless influences people’s behaviour.” Prior to this, what was the commonly accepted practice for psychiatric treatment of the day?
JW: The orientation of the German and Austrian psychiatric culture in which Freud was originally trained was exclusively physiological and displayed virtually no interest in clinical treatment. Indeed, it has been accused of “therapeutic nihilism”; that is, of almost totally disregarding psychotherapy and being only concerned with organic diagnoses. The German-speaking psychiatrists, so the story goes, would speculate about the location of the lesion patients’ brains that were causing their psychiatric disorder, wait for them to die, and then perform an autopsy to determine whether the diagnosis was correct.
The French Clinical Tradition was just the opposite. It wasn’t simply clinical; it was absolutely fascinated by what W. H. Auden called “the fauna of the night”—hypnotic trances, somnambulism, human automatisms, multiple personalities, second selves, demonic possessions, fugue states, waking dreams, and the like. During his sojourn in Paris where he studied with Jean-Martin Charcot—“the Napoleon of the neurosis”—Freud came to realize that along with hypnosis, all these phenomena pointed in the direction of a dynamic unconscious. Freud’s six months in the French capital constituted a crucial passage on his path to becoming the first psychoanalyst. It was in Paris that Freud concluded that psychopathology, “the sick soul,” was the domain in which he could make the great discoveries he so desperately wanted to make.
SC: The couch, which Freud turned into a medical tool, is arguably his greatest innovation, which has probably saved the practice of psychiatry from extinction. Yet today, the advent of psychoactive drugs threatens the very relevance of the hourly ritual of excavating the unconscious. What is your view on drug therapy?
JW: I do not deny that there is much to be criticized about the field of clinical psychoanalysis and the way it has been practiced. Nor do I deny that there are many patients for whom medication is absolutely necessary; not to provide it to them would be unethical.
Nevertheless, I believe that the so-called psychopharmacological revolution has largely been a hoax perpetrated by the drug industry in cahoots with the psychiatric profession. The new meds—which are not as effective as their champions claim they are, and which have serious side effects—are vastly over-prescribed. To no small degree, this is the result of the fact that fewer and fewer clinicians are trained to practice in-depth psychotherapy. To the extent that psychiatric residents are trained to talk to a patient, it is in large part to make a diagnosis that will supposedly tell them which medication to prescribe.
More disturbingly, as a former president of the American Psychiatric Association intimated to me, the way that atypical antipsychotics—pedaled under the label “mood stabilizers”—are being doled out to our children and adolescents is a medical scandal of historical proportions. The scandal is compounded by the fact that, for ethical reasons, it is impossible to conduct research to determine the effect these powerful drugs may be having on developing brains. What we are observing is, in fact, an attempt to manage an epidemic of alienation and despair among our young people with medication, which is to say, a medicalization of a daunting social crisis.
The marketing of the psychopharmacological revolution deployed a central claim: that, as opposed to a soft-minded discipline like psychoanalysis, it was based on rigorous science. The scientific pretensions of Big Pharma and the psychiatrists, however, have repeatedly been shown to be spurious. Revised editions of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) appear almost as frequently as new additions of the Zagat Guide, and they are about as rigorous.
I should add that I believe that the discovery of brain imaging technology is exciting and may, in the long run, lead to profound scientific discoveries. But these developments are at an embryonic stage, and the exaggerated claims that are currently being made for them are unfounded.
SC: Our notion of sex has never been the same after Freud pointed to its overarching significance. Do you think his contamination of our perceptions has been ultimately pernicious?
JW: Your formulation of the question prejudices the way it can be answered. In fact, your use of “contamination” reveals your puritanical bias. It suggests that it would have been better to have left the sexual genie in the bottle.
The French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche observed that human sexuality arrives on the scene too early, that is, before the infant’s ego has been fully developed so that it can integrate it. And for that reason, not only will our sexuality always contain a significant phantasmagorical dimension; it will also always be overdetermined and problematic. The belief that human sexuality can be made reasonable is a progressivist illusion.
Like Freud, I am a pagan, which is to say, a scientific naturalist. I believe that sexuality should be treated directly and honestly, and accepted as an essential and marvelous part of human life. Whatever one makes of the details of Freud’s drive theory, he made an enormous contribution to combating hypocrisy, prudery, and sentimentality, and treating sexuality in a naturalist manner. (The psychoanalyst Robert Stoller is also exemplary in this regard.)
The sexual revolution represented another step forward in the process Freud helped to initiate. At its inception, that revolution held out the promise of developing relationships between individuals that were not only less inhibited, but also more gratifying, honest, and humane. The hope of transforming the power relations between individuals and between the sexes constituted its utopian core. And despite its obvious failures, it has accomplished these goals—or at least placed them on our cultural agenda—to a significant degree. As I can see with my students, people who were born after the revolution exploded have little idea of the magnitude of the change that has occurred.
This is not to say that the sexual revolution hasn’t also had its dark side. Like Rome, patriarchy wasn’t going to be overthrown in a day.
Ever since Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays—who exploited his uncle’s discoveries to invent the field of public relations—consulted with the leaders of American capitalism informing them that sex could provide a powerful resource for marketing their products, they have been deploying it with great success. It was inevitable that the market would seize the sexual revolution to boost corporate profits dramatically. Therefore, at the same time as we have witnessed impressive advances in sexual liberation and enlightenment over the past half-century, we have also seen a massive commodification, which is to say, a dehumanization of sexuality. In many cases, Herbert Marcuse’s notion of “repressive de-sublimation” provides an apt concept for describing what is going on. To my knowledge, no one has produced a satisfactory analysis of the significance of Internet pornography.
What’s more, when “the birth of the pill” freed the woman from the fear of pregnancy, it made it possible for them to pursue their identity and sexual pleasure with the same freedom that men had always enjoyed. This development posed a profound and threatening challenge to the patriarchal structures of authority and domination that had been in place for millennia. Consequently, along with a significant refashioning of sexual relations in contemporary society, we have also witnessed an ugly backlash—indeed a sexual counter-revolution—that has achieved its apotheosis with the appalling misogyny of Donald Trump and his minions.
SC: Almost every element of Freud’s views were contested during his lifetime. How did Freud handle such criticism?
JW: Displaying contradictions does not of itself discredit a great thinker. On the contrary, as Hannah Arendt observed, it is often the case that the greater the thinker, the greater the contradictions. And this is certainly true for Freud.
At times he could be rigidly dogmatic—for example, in his insistence that the Oedipus complex represented the “nuclear complex” of the neurosis, and that adherence to it constituted the litmus for determining who was a legitimate psychoanalyst. At other times, however, he could be remarkably self-critical. Thus, in The Ego and the Id and in Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, which is to say in the 1920s, he revised a number of his most fundamental hypotheses and undertook a major reconstitution of his entire theoretical framework.
Q: It seems Freud was more enamored of his own theories and hypotheses than someone who was genuinely interested in testing them rigorously through the scientific method. Is this the conclusion you drew when researching his case studies?
There is no question that the case studies are dogmatic and polemical, and fail to provide the empirical validation of Freud’s theory that he claimed they did. Therefore, rather than discussing them, I would like to make some more general comments. Unlike many of Freud’s critics, I will be assuming that, in some important sense, psychoanalytic theory is valid. At the same time, however, I also acknowledge that the attempt to legitimatize it runs into a number of daunting problems. Perhaps the best I can do here is briefly sketch those problems.
Again, your question betrays a prejudice. You assume that there is one agreed-upon “scientific method” that is valid and applicable to all fields, and that psychoanalysis should be evaluated in terms of it. I not only contest your assumption, but also suggest that it is you who is “enamored” with so-called standard science. Your assumption harkens back to the old positivist dogma that mathematical physics constituted the sole valid paradigm of scientific rationality. That was a prescriptive claim—generally advanced by philosophers rather than scientists—which, in addition to being a priori, had little to do with the pluralism of actually existing scientific practices. The same methodology that is, for example, appropriate for research into the movement of inanimate bodies in space is not appropriate for studying the behavior of the mountain gorillas in their natural habitat.
An over-worked joke is often cited in this context. It is, however, over-worked for a good reason: it is apt. The joke goes like this. One night when a cop comes across a drunk crawling on all fours under a streetlight, the following exchange occurs:
Cop: What are you doing?
Drunk: Looking for my keys.
Cop: Oh, is this where you lost them?
Drunk: No, I lost them across the street.
Cop: Then why are you looking here?
Drunk: Because this is where the light is.
The drunk can be compared to standard scientists who believe they possess the proper methodology. They only investigate in places and in ways that their methodology can illuminate—regardless of the fact they are often destined to miss the object. Unlike the complacent methodologist, the innovative scientist will struggle to create a method for illuminating the other side of the street, so to speak.
And this is what Freud did. There were few methodological precedents that he could draw on in his attempt to advance the march of science into a new realm of the natural world, namely, psychic reality. He was “obligated,” as he put it, “to build [his] way out into the dark.” This means that while Freud was exploring a radically new object domain, he simultaneously had to create a methodology that was opposite for the object domain he was exploring.
But here we run into a difficulty. Freud considered himself a Stoffdenker (substance thinker), who was too busy making substantive discoveries to have time to expend on methodological niceties. He compared methodologists to people who are so busy polishing their glasses that they never bother to look at the world. He, therefore, devoted little effort to clarifying the methodological foundations of psychoanalysis.
But at the same time, in order to promote his scandalous discoveries in a skeptical world, Freud always insisted that he was a natural scientist. And to compound the problem even further, this assertion wasn’t only rhetorical; science undoubtedly represented a cherished ideal for him. The problem is, however, that Freud told us very little about what he meant by “science.” Furthermore, what he did have to say showed little correspondence with the basic tenets of fin-de-siècle positivism. One of the tasks I confronted in my book was, therefore, to attempt to reconstruct the conception of science he was employing in his scattered remarks.
In today’s intellectual milieu, “the methodological debate in the human sciences,” which took place nearly a half a century ago, has largely been forgotten. At the time, two of our most eminent philosophers, Paul Ricoeur and Jürgen Habermas, attempted to stand the dominant positivist paradigm on its head. The positivists, as I have noted, maintained that mathematical physics provided the sole paradigm of scientific validity, and that all other sciences, including the human sciences, had to conform to it. Ricoeur and Habermas argued, on the contrary, that psychoanalysis represented an example of a successful human science that could not only be used to criticize the positivist paradigm, but also to extrapolate methodological principles that are proper to the human sciences.
I don’t have the space to go into their arguments, but only want to make the following point. Because of the convergence of a variety of factors—including Foucault’s critique of the human sciences, the rise of cultural studies, the postmodernist rejection of science, and the recrudescence of positivism—“the methodological debate in the human sciences” has largely been abandoned. I suggest that rather than hoisting psychoanalysis on the petard of standard science, it would be more fruitful to return to the questions that were raised by that debate.
A word of caution, however, is in order. Stressing the magnitude of the difficulties involved in validating psychoanalytic theory and practice runs a serious risk. It can be used as a license to avoid the attempt to clarify and justify one’s position publicly—a dodge that unfortunately is not unknown in the history of psychoanalysis. When this occurs, psychoanalysts do in fact behave like members of a religious cult who claim that their truths are too profound and esoteric to be submitted to public scrutiny.
But there is also a complimentary difficulty emanating from the other direction. Proponents of standard science cannot explain how it is possible for their methodology to capture the unique features of psychoanalytic experience: it’s hyper-complexity, non-repeatability, and the fact that by its very nature it only takes place between two people. This conundrum should be the point of departure for any serious discussion of the validity of psychoanalytic theory and practice.
SC: Virtually none of Freud’s theories have been confirmed, and the effectiveness of his therapy has not been established. Do you think these twin verdicts are likely to be final?
JW: There you go again. As I argued in my answer to the previous question, I reject your assertion that “virtually none of Freud’s theories have been confirmed.” It would be fatuous to deny that Freud’s theories of defense, transference, narcissism, omnipotence, mourning, and idealization, not to mention of the dynamic unconscious and childhood sexuality are now central to the way we think about human nature—however much they may have been revised over the years. They have become part of our cultural heritage.
Your point concerning the effectiveness of psychoanalytic therapy is more complicated. It is undeniable that after the Second World War, during the halcyon days of psychoanalysis, the psychoanalytic establishment vastly oversold its applicability and effectiveness. And there was a predictable and understandable backlash against the grandiose claims of the analysts, as well as against their dogmatism, authoritarianism, and sexism. (It is fair to say that the postwar psychoanalytic establishment could not survive the cultural upheavals of the 1960s.) Today, psychoanalytic practitioners have been humbled and generally make more circumspect claims for themselves.
In addition to these factors, a number of external forces converged to diminish the prestige of psychoanalysis in the public’s eye. To begin with an obvious point, we witnessed a proliferation of competing, less demanding, and less costly modes of psychotherapy. Naturally, the insurance companies not only preferred to pick up the tab for these less expensive forms of treatment, but they also often promoted research to prove that they were more effective. And mutatis mutandis, the situation was further exacerbated by the emergence of a new wave of psychotropic medications that, as I mentioned, were hyped by Big Pharma and psychiatry.
Even more consequentially, profound developments were taking place in contemporary culture that were diametrically opposed to a psychoanalytic sensibility. Psychoanalysis eschews easy answers and quick solutions, and it pursues insight and understanding. It requires hard work and the ability to tolerate considerable frustration and discomfort. Perhaps most importantly, psychoanalysis requires introspection, that is, the redirection of one’s gaze away from external stimulation and towards one’s inner world.
But many of the most prominent features of our culture—for example, the demand for immediate gratification, commercialism, hyper-sexualization, the idealization of youth, twenty-four-hour media hype, and the cult of celebrity—conspire against a psychoanalytic stance towards reality.
There is one feature I especially want to stress. In our current environment, that is, say, in our doctors’ offices, airports, banks, and living rooms, we are continually bombarded by external stimuli that pull us away from inner reality. That everyone’s gaze seems to be continually directed at a screen of one sort or another—at smartphones, tablets, computers, and TV’s—suggests that the members of contemporary society have difficulty being alone with their thoughts and feelings, an ability which, as I mentioned, is a prerequisite for psychoanalytic reflection.
There is undoubtedly much to be criticized in the profession of psychoanalysis. But the decline in the status of psychoanalysis is also a symptom of the pathology of contemporary culture. It is correlated with that culture’s infantilism, commercialism, vulgarity, and superficiality—all of which, I might add, have contributed to the rise not only of Donald Trump, but also to the more worrying phenomenon of Trumpism.
Finally, regarding the question of finding the right therapist, in my experience, there is no easy answer. As in marriage, it involves an enormous element of luck. I do believe, however, that whatever type of treatment a clinician is practicing—and very few of today’s clinicians practice classical analysis—that having been analytically trained is an enormous asset.
SC: Many scholars still use Freudian theory in literary criticism, in analyses of film, the visual arts, and in analyzing cultural trends. Do you think such uses of Freud’s ideas are illegitimate?
JW: Of course, I believe that the use of Freudian theory is legitimate for cultural criticism. How could I not? I come out of the Frankfurt School, and they were the ones who helped to initiate the use of psychoanalysis for social, cultural, and political critique.
However, I have some difficulties with the way many of today’s scholars deploy psychoanalytic ideas. Contemporary “theory” is largely oriented towards Lacanian and Derridian interpretations of psychoanalysis. And I would maintain that for two reasons French Freud is not only opposed to the Frankfurt School, but also to Freud himself.
First, French Freud derives from Heidegger and the Counter-Enlightenment. It takes the Heideggerian critique of the Cartesian cogito and uses it to interpret Freud’s theory of the ego, arguing that Freud’s intention was to totally “deconstruct” or even “destruct” the ego. This is a misrepresentation of Freud’s position. It is true that, like Heidegger, Freud rejected a fully transparent and centered Cartesian ego. But unlike the German philosopher, Freud did not reject the ego as such. Instead, he offered us a decentered conception of the ego that was more chastened, supple, inclusive, and flexible than the ego of the idealist philosophers. One might say that with Freud, while the ego was no longer master of its own house, it hadn’t been evicted entirely.
Second, I often find the dazzling theoretical pyrotechnics of the French Freudians too brilliant. It seems to me that it often represents an intellectualized defense against one of the central tasks of the Freudian project: namely, to face the painful exigencies of life.
SC: For the uninitiated, where would you recommend one begin in studying Freud?
JW: Freud was a great teacher. I would, therefore, suggest beginning with his Introductory Lectures and New Introductory Lectures to Psychoanalysis. For a very readable standard account of his life, I would recommend Ronald Clark’s biography. Richard Wollheim’s Sigmund Freud provides a lucid, coherent, and accessible account of the development of Freud’s theory. Two elegantly written monographs have been published recently that give one a feel for the man. They are Mark Edmundson’s The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days, and Matthew von Unwerth’s Freud’s Requiem.
Photo by Giancarlo Biagi © 2017