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Evaluating Sigmund Freud: Should we compare him to biologists or economists?

This post is about how we should think about Freud, not about how we should think about biology or economics.

So. There’s this whole thing about Sigmund Freud being a bad scientist. Or maybe I should say a bad person and a terrible scientist. The “bad person” thing isn’t so relevant, but the “terrible scientist” thing is that, in a sort of perverse reversal of Popperian reasoning, he falsified his data to fit his theories. This came up in a recent book by Frederick Crews (see, for example, this review by George Prochnik), but it’s not news to anyone with any awareness that Freud had major, possibly fatal flaws as an empirical scientist, at least by the standards to which we hold empirical science today, and even in the time of Darwin.

But . . . maybe we’re using the wrong standard of comparison. Maybe, instead of comparing Freud to biologists such as Darwin, or psychologists such as Piaget or Pavlov, we should be comparing him to economists such as Adam Smith or David Ricardo who, like Freud, set up broad theoretical frameworks that promised to explain vast otherwise seemingly disconnected aspects of life. OK, so Freud altered the story of Dora to make a point he wanted to make. Well, what about Adam Smith and the pin factory? That’s a stylized story too, right? Smith was more honest because he didn’t pretend he was documenting a particular story—and honesty is central to science. My point here is not that Freud was an exemplary scientist, or an exemplary social scientist, but rather that his theories have a similar logical status to classic economic theories, and a similar appeal. The problem is, one could say, that Freud is presenting social-science-style theorizing as if it’s biological science. Imagine if some economist of Freud’s era had said that there was a “utility organ” in the brain. That would be pretty silly.

So, from that perspective, perhaps Freud’s big problem was that he was making a sort of category error. Strip away the biological trappings and Freud is a social scientist of 1900 vintage. To criticize Freud for being unscientific would make no more sense than criticizing Adam Smith on these grounds: both are builders of frameworks.

This is not to shield Freud from criticism, just to say that he can and should be criticized on the specifics, and his framework can be evaluated on its utility, but without thinking that just cos it’s not biology-style science, that it’s necessarily useless.

Try thinking this another way, as a sort of family tree of scientific inquiry starting with Newton, Kepler, etc., who were systematizers, coming up with general laws of motion. From this tree, one branch leads to the social scientists who are, in a sense, the followers of the theoretical physicists, coming up with models of the world, the social equivalents of string theory. Another branch leads to the biologists who are testing their theories with data and being all Popperian. This split is not clean—biology has sweeping theories and some social science theories can be tested—but I think there’s something to this idea.

P.S. Also this (racism is a framework, not a theory) and this (Economics now = Freudian psychology in the 1950s).


  1. everett says:

    yes, arguably no other notable figure in history… was so totally wrong about nearly every important thing he ever said. But, luckily for Freud, academics are still infinitely creative in their efforts to whitewash his errors — the mystical pseudo-medical-science of psychoanalysis & psychiatry is still held in extremely high regard with vast government and private resources wasted on its Freudian nonsense.

  2. Jonathan says:

    My take generally agrees with yours. I see the issues with Freud as revolving not so much around his work as around the way it has been treated. He came up with some deep ideas. He presented them, and in doing so he ‘advocated’, which is my latest general term for the behavior you generally describe. It came to me as I was thinking of how people read and hear what lawyers say wrongly because lawyers are trained as advocates, meaning they present a story not the whole story but rather a story with the particular goal of reaching a particular ending, whether that’s reasonable doubt or damages or defense and so on. So Freud advocated. Did he have a choice? I doubt it. How else do you get heard? And the temptations to advocate are huge: how many pop stars begin with the most mass market sound they can find and then become ‘serious’ because now they have an audience they would not otherwise reach if they began with ‘serious’ music? The problem is that we people tend to refer to Freud in the way Castro refers to The Revolution, as some holy or seismic event which not only resounds today but which can only be revised gently and with proper reverence. Freud had some great insights. There’s truth in them. It’s not the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He would understand that. He’d says something like, ‘you go back and be me’, meaning would you tell fewer lies, make fewer guesses you pass off as solid? One of my favorite scientists to read is Newton because he would work for years on something and would write it out simply as though all the mistakes and wrong guesses never happened along the way. He advocates using specific evidence that tells an actually true story and, somewhat uniquely, would approach the line of what he could not know and recognize it, as when he noted – famously of course – that polishing is just neater scratching. Particle or wave? You can see the great mind wavering. (But then he seems to have decided: I have to make a decision. But it’s clear he never completely bought either side.) Newton had stuff we might call ‘facts’ to advocate with while Freud had ‘factoids’. To blame him for using factoids would mean we cut off conceptual work because a main goal of conceptual work is to develop ideas that lead to facts, and that process often includes using ‘factoids’ in the hope they become ‘facts’. As you so often note, we mislabel factoids as facts a lot. By factoid, I’m partially referencing the common word but I mean it fairly specifically as a Thing which with more dimensions than are visible in any presentation so the truth of falsity of the thing may turn on the dimensions viewed and thus on the dimensions that can be viewed. The process of conceptual work is in part to determine models for identifying not only dimensions in and of a Thing but, again as you so often note, how the means of identification generate reliable and unreliable appearances.

    In this regard, let me share a cat story. My brilliant youngest noticed her cats had switched jobs: instead of one standing on her and tapping her face early in the morning for food and attention, the other has the job except that one lies next to her and purrs. What’s wrong with purring, you ask? It woke her. So she checked and found: he’s purring at a frequency which is like a baby crying for food. Diabolical nature! Imagine all the complexity, all the dimensions behind and within the behavior of not just one cat but the pair of them and how this cat, without awareness, does this behavior and what that means and so on. It’s a very big room inside the simple act of a cat purr waking my daughter. In the 19thC, this was perhaps the last refuge of the old folk religion that said God is in the seasons because only God can make a tree or make a cat purr at 3AM to wake you because the pitch penetrates sleep. That knowledge is fact but it began out of factoids and it still exists in factoid form today: think of how many paths you can take into and out of that purr!

  3. Seth Green says:

    I have been thinking about just this question lately, thinking back on reading Freud in college. In a sociology class, we tried to understand the subtler aspects of his thought, and in a class on the history of sexuality, we read one of his texts as a window into past thinking on sex in general. Anyway, a comment like yours, from both professors, about about how we should treat Freud’s work — is it worth attempting to falsify it? analyze its role in the history of ideas? Try to separate out the true content out from the false? — would have been really helpful. I would have benefited as a reader from such comments on, to name a few others, Fanon, Foucault, Habermas, Baudrillard — I really had no idea whether it was literature or social science or what sorts of knowledge I was supposed to get out of them.

    • jrkrideau says:

      Try to separate out the true content out from the false?

      I may be a bit cynical but Freud had some “true content”?

      I come from main stream North American psychology where no one even mentions Freud so I really know nothing but the most incidental things about him. I don’t think I have ever heard a psychologist mention his name.

      I had not realized that there were Freudian psychoanalysts still alive and practicing in North America. I guess it is like homeopathy; no basis in fact or theory but it lives on as some kind of zombie theory that refuses to die.

      His blasted “repressed memories” idea has gotten into the public consciousness and done a lot of damage to people.

      • Anonymous2 says:

        homeopathy — That’s an interesting analogy: Freudian theory might be wildly off, but the sessions might be beneficial just because talking to someone and thinking about things is helpful. Similarly, homeopathy is bunk or woo or whatever, but at least the person is still hydrating! Better, of course, to hydrate with a scientifically informed mix of electrolytes or vitamins or what have you; and better to talk things through with a “main stream” clinical psychologist. :)

        Also, not only is Freud alive and well and living in Paris, but so too is Jacques Lacan, who seems to be in his prime in a Humanities department near you.

        • jrkrideau says:

          Yes to Paris, regretfully, and I understand Argentina is a bastion of Freudian nonsense. There seems to be an infestation of Freudians (and perhaps Jungians ) in the clinical psychology and psychiatry fields in both places, from the little I know.

          Homeopathy ≈ Freudian thought?

          The thing is that both, and we probably can include Christian Science here as well, come from a pre-scientific basis.

          At the times when Hahnemann was inventing homeopathy in the late 18th C or Freud was inventing his brand of psychoanalysis, medicine and mental health treatments did not have much, if any, solid basis. On the medicine side, the science historian David Wootton estimates it was only at roughly the turn of the 20th century that medicine helped more people than it killed. Survival rates might have been better with useless treatments than with active medical interventions.

          On the mental health side, talking to a sympathetic priest or minister was likely as effective as a psychoanalyst. Both the priest and the psychoanalyst was a relatively neutral and disinterested person to whom one could bring problems and who might be able to suggest useful strategies. Their theoretical orientations might be a bit different, but what the heck.

          In a lot of cases where there was “improvement we were probably seeing partly a placebo effect plus some real improvements from the talking combined with the cure of time.

          My knowledge of Freud, etc is so “great” I had to google “Jacques Lacan”. It is interesting that he seems to have had an effect on the humanities while, as far as I am aware, in North American “main stream” psychology his name seems completely unknown.

          The last person I spoke to who seemed to be using Freudian theory for something was a grad student in history. She seemed to be using it as some kind of organizing theme (?) in her dissertation.

          I wonder if the main repositories of Freudian thought are among those who do not actually do any behavioural research or therapy? If one does not know any better, the theory may sound “reasonable” or at least useful in framing arguments.

    • Kyle C says:

      Seth: Wow do I relate to that. I actually observed in a small seminar that the big issue in reading Freud seemed to be what we should expect from social science, and the lecturer’s response was, mm-hmm, yep, but that was it.

  4. Ben says:

    Perhaps we should compare him to an astrologer or a telephone psychic.

    • Xi'an says:

      Or just compare him to a poet?! But to associate Freud and science when there is nothing reproducible in his theory does not seem correct. In my (French) high school, one of his books (Introduction to psychoanalysis or Interpretation of dreams) was on the program for the philosophy final exam, which I found exciting at the time but now consider mostly a waste of time when thinking of numerous philosophers we could have read instead.

  5. Jonathan (another one) says:

    I buy this, but I think a better comparison is Marx rather than Smith. Marx, unlike Smith, thought he was embedding his framework in extensive empirical evidence. Smith was looking for exemplars and teaching aids.

  6. Guive says:

    Do you think it makes sense to treat historians, who are generally concerned with very particular questions aand don’t like big theories very much, like the social science equivalent of biologists?

  7. Chas says:

    I would vote for comparing him to Marx.

    FYI, we forget that Freud first started off as a neurologist, and was from memory was actually quite talented. Quick internet search, this was the first hit:

    I attended a lecture by Thomas Szasz (famous for “The Myth of Mental Illness”) who brought up excellent points that I haven’t seen elsewhere, so there won’t be any citation or references. Basically, as a Jew, Freud’s options for employment in Austria in the late 1800’s were very limited. He wasn’t going to be get a government position either as a professor of neurology, or a state sanitarium position as a psychiatrist. So, he was going to have to go into private practice, and if he was going to make his mark on the world, he was going to have to find a new direction. His creation of “psychoanalysis” was this direction.

    Sorry, no cat stories!

    • jrkrideau says:

      I would not necessarily trust Szasz on history. I do envy you for having been in one of his lectures.

      Most scientists tend to know next to nothing about the history of their discipline. They know a few, usually heroic, legends about their field(Newton & the apple or James Watt & the tea kettle) but one really needs an historian of science who actually knows how to evaluate the historical evidence.

      In fact, the first paragraph in your link does not suggest discrimination just lack seniority was a major problem
      His prospects in Ernst Brücke’s lab were not good: although the quality of Freud’s research had been above reproach, there were two other assistants in the lab who had seniority and would receive promotions long before Freud.

      Just from the Sigmund Freud wiki:

      He qualified as a doctor of medicine in 1881 at the University of Vienna. Upon completing his habilitation in 1885, he was appointed a docent in neuropathology and became an affiliated professor in 1902

      I am not sure if this means he might have been able to make a academic career in Vienna but the anti-Jewish sentiment does not seem to have made him an outcast. Someone planning or forced into private practice is not likely to do his habilitation.

      • Chas says:

        I didn’t take Szasz to be an authority on history, I thought that he was providing a personal & cultural context to what was going on at the time (he was born and raised for the first 18 years of his life in Hungary). I don’t think there were any laws on the books, so to speak, just more like you would know that opportunities and promotions would be more available to others who were more “connected” and less available to those who society looked down on (like Jews).

        I don’t have time to do a “deep dive” on history of anti-semitism & social mobility in Austro-Hungary or Vienna in the 1800’s, but a quick search did make it sound like it was a difficult time.

        In a similar context, there wouldn’t have been any discriminatory laws in the books in the South post-Civil War and pre-Civil Rights Act, but a black person would have known that there were certain establishments they could enter & not enter, that there were certain jobs they could get and not get, etc.

        • jrkrideau says:

          Oh, there was antisemitism in the Austrio-Hungarian Empire as there was all over Europe, and even if not overt, there would be subtle, systemic discrimination. However, it did not, as far as I am aware, extent to outright repression or something like the pogroms in the Russian Empire.

          If it was really bad in the academic field we have to ask how Einstein got an academic appointment in Prague.

          One must remember that Szasz was born after WWI as the Empire collapsed and Hungary became independent. If wiki is correct, he left for the USA in 1938, when he would have been about 18. And, as the Nazis were going crazy in Germany.

          At best, he would only have heard stories or legends of what Vienna was like in the 1880’s or 1890’s.

          • Chas says:

            Wow! You are right! If Einstein could do it, *anybody* could do it..

            I would suggest that it may be an error to conflate all of continental Europe as being very similar, when there may have been local or regional cultural and/or political differences.

            I would also suggest that it may be an error to equate Einstein’s experience when he got his academic appt. in Prague, with anybody else’s experience. In particular, at that point in time, he was already a renowned expert, with an existing appointment (and would go on to win the Nobel Prize in about 12 years).

            Maybe to bring this back to the original question: At the time, physics (compared to medicine, and especially compared to psychiatry) would have had more established theories that yielded testable hypotheses, along with established research methods that could be used to determine whether the experiment supported the hypothesis, or not.

            Freud would have been aware of (at least) basic research methods in his time as neurologist, but would have been handicapped by the state of medical research at the time which would have been heavily reliant on single case reports. However, to the best of my knowledge (definitely *not* a Freud expert) he never bothered to even try to frame his ideas as testable hypotheses. He just stated them as “truths” that were hidden from other people, but that he had discovered, which is why I had thought him more akin to a Marx than any other person mentioned in the comments.

            • jrkrideau says:

              However, to the best of my knowledge (definitely *not* a Freud expert) he never bothered to even try to frame his ideas as testable hypotheses.

              I don’t think he did either. He intuited the “Truth”. Humm, he seems to be sounding more like Adam Smith all the time.

              I agree that Einstein was something of a special case but he was handy and Prague was in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I was too lazy to search for someone in Vienna.

              Oh, when Einstein took up the post in Prague he received Austro-Hungarian citizenship. There seems to be some doubt that Einstein realized this.

              • Chas says:

                lol, I swear I’m not disagreeing just for the sake of disagreeing!

                But I think it is *very* important to look at the context in which these historical figures were operating and not to criticize them harshly for not meeting our modern standards.

                On that basis, I’m willing to cut Adam Smith some slack. He was writing at a very, very early stage in the development of economics, before I believe there was such a term.

                Not an economics expert, either, but I believe that even Marx had some novel and useful ideas in his writings, but it was how far beyond the evidence and facts at hand, that I believe was his greatest fault (although industrial society at the time needed critiquing, that seemed appropriate).

                My biggest problem with Freud is that, despite knowing better, he went off on his own, against all current scientific evidence *at that time* , to create his own brand of mumbo-jumbo that probably set back the scientific study of psychiatry by about 50 years, and hurt countless people in the process (I’m thinking of all the people who were told that their unconscious psychosexual conflicts were the root of a child’s schizophrenia or other psychosis).

                At the time he created “psychoanalysis,” there was already much evidence for complex behavior and neurologic disease to be caused by brain lesions or brain disease. Broca had already described expressive aphasia & its mechanism in the late 1860’s, Wernicke would have already described receptive aphasia & its mechanism in the 1870’s, Charcot would have described multiple sclerosis in the 1870’s, Wernicke & Korsakoff would have both described their syndrome in the 1880’s & 1890’s. Dejerine would have first described “alexia without agraphia”in the early 1890’s, and also detailed the mechanism behind it! These are just examples I am most familiar with.

                So, there was substantial historical background for Freud to have sought a more scientific explanation for behaviors that he saw. He could have tried to stand on the shoulders of giants. Instead, he extrapolated something that went far beyond any reasonable scientific evidence of his day.

                Heck, doing a quick google search to double check my memory for the dates, I found out that Theodor Meynert was the head of psychiatry at the time Freud would have been trying to get a job. Meynert was adamant about trying to establish a scientific basis for psychiatry. According to Wikipedia (don’t laugh!):

                “Meynert’s aim was to establish psychiatry as an exact science based on anatomy. In his 1884 textbook … Meynert forewords with the statement:…’The historical term for psychiatry, i.e., ‘treatment of the soul,’ implies more than we can accomplish, and transcends the bounds of accurate scientific investigation.'”

                (the second “don’t laugh” of this response…that quote just above was from a Thomas Szasz essay!)

                So, to wrap up, just my opinion, Freud…really…blew it. Do **not** compare him to any scientist.

    • No doubt that Freud was a genius of sorts. But to take him seriously would make one even more cynical I would think. As it is people overanalyze each other.

  8. Phil says:

    There’s an interesting though shallow take on Freud at on Gizmodo that I guess is where Everett (above) got his nice phrase that “academics have been… infinitely creative in their efforts to whitewash his errors.” It also lists some things he got sort of right.

    I find the id-ego-superego framework useful in thinking of people’s actions and motivations, including my own. Sure, it’s just a fancy way of thinking about the devil on one shoulder (id), the angel on the other (superego), and ‘me’ (ego) in between, but…well, just as statisticians say ‘all models are wrong, some models are useful’, I find this to be a useful model of the mind, even though it’s wrong.

    I don’t think Freud is much like Marx (Chas, above); Marx got a lot of stuff right (though far from everything, certainly), whereas Freud got just about everything wrong and went to absurd lengths to twist the facts to fit his theories.

    Freud’s stuff is more like alchemy: a lot of smart people bought into it and tried to study it, and it persisted for a long time because people didn’t want to admit they’d been pursuing nonsense for years and years.

  9. It’s not a question of ‘ because he was?’. I was part of the generation that was less constrained by convention. Freud appealed to my parents’ generation. You are right about Jung. He spooked me out.

  10. jrc says:

    I think the framing in Michel Foucault’s “What is an Author?” is useful here. Foucault calls both Freud and Marx “initiators of discursive practices”*. Here is the key bit:

    “The distinctive contribution of these authors is that they produced not only their own work, but the possibility and the rules of formation of other texts.”

    This is a similar idea to the one you propose when you say these thinkers provide “broad theoretical frameworks that promised to explain vast otherwise seemingly disconnected aspects of life.” But when you write about why this expansion of one interpretive framework over a new domain, you seem to think it in terms of explaining the physical world. When Foucault thinks it, he thinks it in terms of creating new rules/logics/frameworks for generating true statements. That is why, according to Foucault, Freud can never be falsified – Psychoanalysis is a system for the generation of truth based exclusively on how well statements work within the Psychoanalytic meta-logic and connect with the broader body of Psychoanalytic knowledge.

    Now here’s where I pretend to be Foucault: it doesn’t matter that Freud pretended Psychoanalysis is Science, because even Science is pretending at an objective claim to determining what is “true”, when really it is just another discursive practice. Discursive practices (Psychoanalysis, Marxism; Neoclassical Economics; “Science”) each contain a non-symbolic logic that rests, often hidden, at their core. This core set of rules and relations determines what can and cannot be considered “true”… and Science works no differently.

    There are two reasons why we might think we see a major difference in the “truth” or “correctness” of Pyschoanalysis as compared to “Social Science” or even “Physics”: 1) “science” has proven more powerful than psychoanalysis, in that it can actually allow people to manipulate more of the world in ways that directly benefit them; and 2) we are so embedded in our own discursive practice of “Science” we can’t even see that is has its own rules of truth creation that are grounded not in some external Truth but in equally indefensible claims about the ontology of the universe and a (social-subjective) decision to assign truth-values to statements based on how well they allow us to manipulate the physical world. I don’t think it was G-d who decided said that the marker of truth was that it allowed you to manipulate the physical world, I think it was us.

    Now being my usual jrc self again: both of us like reading novels. Probably because we get something important from it we can’t get from social science. Novels can reveal truth in ways Science can’t. Apparently, some people get that from Psychoanalysis too. And you seem to agree with that, but somehow it still comes off as “you know, if it stopped pretending to be Objective Science, psychoanalysis would be fine.” And the problem there is that science is also non-objectively defining what counts as true, so the argument just eats itself alive.

    Maybe. I dunno – I think I remember why I quit doing philosophy now. I’m gonna go grab some tylenol.

    Tl;dr – there is no truth, you can’t handle the truth, reading this may cause headache.

  11. Jordan Anaya says:

    I like the idea of separating biologists from theoretical physicists and social scientists.

    In biology, if you claim to make a major discovery, other labs rush to check it. Look at how quickly STAP cells were checked, which led to a suicide:

    Perhaps the most applicable story is that of NgAgo:

    An unknown researcher in China claims to have developed a technology that can rival CRISPR, is instantly rewarded with massive grants by his government, and he and the local media react defensively when scientists in other countries challenge the work, eventually leading to its retraction.

    It’s interesting, depressing, and all too familiar to think about how the story would play out in the social sciences. Researcher makes bold claim, it doesn’t replicate, yet they continue to defend their work. Instead of the work getting retracted, the researcher gets TED talks, best-selling books, editorial positions, etc.

  12. Sean Matthews says:

    Seems to me that Freud made therapeutic claims and lied about or misrepresented the supporting evidence.
    Further, the therapeutic claims were about ameliorating mental suffering and even illness.

    Not quite the same as a stylised narrative about a pin factory.

  13. Thomas B says:

    I think of Freud as being more of an ethnologist or anthropologist like Clifford Geertz or Dan Sperber than anything more empirical like an economist.

    • jrkrideau says:

      Stay away from the Anthropology Department ’til they calm down.

      Anthropologists seem to do a lot of actual field work in the depths of the jungles in New Guinia or the wilds of Silicon Vally.

      Freud seemed to dream up theories in the comfort of his home in Vienna. At best, he may have dreamt up new “theories” based on patients he was already treating. He really should have stuck with neuropathology.

  14. steven t johnson says:

    It seems to me that most people who hate, hate, hate Freud are convinced that everyone’s self-report of their motives and feelings is authoritative. The idea that attributing other motives is a violation of science because it is unfalsifiable, which makes this a totalitarian assault on humanity I guess we owe to Popper. But it seems to me the presumption that conscious motives are the story is what strikes me as falsified by experience. Even, I confess, by introspection. And, even worse, this animus is suspiciously like an emotional commitment to secularized (?) versions of the soul’s free will. It would be helpful to those who wish to memorialize Freud as a villain if they could attribute the notion that you can’t unquestioningly believe what even honest people say of themselves, to someone else. As is, the ignorant lay person tends to think that Freud was the one who claimed convenient forgetting could be real, not a lie; personal feelings color perception of motives of others; introspection can not always lay bare motives, etc. The elaborate schemes of psychological development are not remembered at all by lay people. Freud thus seems to me to be a figure rather like Paracelsus…ancestral, and dead.

    There was a remark by jkrideau above about how a sympathetic ear from either Freud or a priest could provide therapeutic benefit. This is a commonplace in one sense. Yet in this context it rather took my breath away: Who truly imagines that the religious counselor is a genuinely sympathetic ear? Really, if one is to hope for understanding from clergy, your best bet is those inconsistent thinkers whose theology has been contaminated by Freud’s filthy swindles.

    I’m not certain that some of the need to blast Freud isn’t about supporting REBT and CBT approaches, where the therapist corrects the bad thinking of the patient, adjusting the patient to society. The issue of the empirical efficacy of this project in changing behavior may be amenable to a falsificationist approach. But I am not sure there aren’t larger issues that need addressing, yet are foreclosed by the REBT/CBT model of people as simple agents.

    • Ben C. says:

      To get back to Dr. Crews, the real reason he cant stand Freud as quoted above by commentator JRC,“The distinctive contribution of these authors is that they produced not only their own work, but the possibility and the rules of formation of other texts.” Freud created, explained, or popularized a lot of metaphors that have become useful to many in explaining events and situations encountered in life. Can science falsify metaphors?

    • > It seems to me that most people who hate, hate, hate Freud are convinced that everyone’s self-report of their motives and feelings is authoritative

      No, I hate Freud because Freud was convinced that HIS report of YOUR motives and feelings was authoritative.

      • Curious says:

        I think this is the most insightful comment about Freud because if we think broadly about what Freud was proposing in his time, it was the idea that there were causal explanations for what people thought or espoused as being their motivations that did not reference a religious deity. Freud was clearly overly specific in his explanations and thus quite wrong, but correct about the broader idea that people’s beliefs about what caused their behavior may not be consistent with what was actually causing it.

        • Martha (Smith) says:

          “if we think broadly about what Freud was proposing in his time, it was the idea that there were causal explanations for what people thought or espoused as being their motivations that did not reference a religious deity.”

          Another way of looking at it (that I suspect is more in line with what Daniel wrote): Freud acted as if he were a deity.

        • > correct about the broader idea that people’s beliefs about what caused their behavior may not be consistent with what was actually causing it.

          Yes I agree that Freud’s insight that there are complex issues that cause observed behavior that have nothing to do with people’s reported reasons for their behavior was a real insight. But as Martha put it, his “deity like” insistence that he’d worked out the “real” reasons was truly irritating, and worse yet, the success of those reasons in the public mind produced a lot of fallout for years after.

          • Curious says:

            Are you arguing that any attempt to research unobserved motives is a fools errand or simply that Freud’s methods were faulty and his inferences far too certain given the methods?

            • Martha (Smith) says:

              To me, the word “motives” seems pretty fuzzy and not a good descriptor of reality as I see it. I think it would be better to talk about “intentions” and “influences”. Various things might influence intentions, but they might also influence behavior without influencing intentions.

              • Curious says:

                I accept you point that “motives” is fuzzy. I will also accept your labels of causal factors (intentions, influences) if what you mean by influences includes both environmental factors (constraints, incentives, disincentives) and automatic processes within the brain outside of momentary awareness.

              • Martha (Smith) says:

                Yes, I would consider environmental factors such as you list (plus e.g., environmental constraints), and automatic processes within the brain outside of momentary awareness — and also genetic or other biological factors — as influences. (And possibly others that neither of us have listed.)

            • I’m more in the camp: Freud’s methods were faulty and his inferences far too certain given the methods.

              But as Keith says below, Freud was basically a careerist, and furthermore a self-promoter in a way that sold his certainty to the public causing long term damage. In fact some of his ideas still do damage:

              see the section on false memories and criminal allegations:

              “Serious issues arise when recovered but false memories result in public allegations; false complaints carry serious consequences for the accused. Many of those who make false claims sincerely believe the truth of what they report. A special type of false allegation, the false memory syndrome, arises typically within therapy, when people report the “recovery” of childhood memories of previously unknown abuse. The influence of practitioners’ beliefs and practices in the eliciting of false “memories” and of false complaints has come under particular criticism.[77] Sometimes these memories are used as evidence in criminal prosecutions.”

              Pseudoscience has consequences for society, all the more when it’s well publicized and overly-certain. We talk about power-posing and all that being mostly harmless, but pseudoscience abounds in many many more scenarios, and does serious harm even if only because it delays the production of real scientific understanding… but often for example in medicine, even direct harm where doctors do things that actively harm people because it’s “scientifically proven”

              • Curious says:


                I agree with your comment. Labeling people with false certainty based on crude methods does real harm when those labels are used to make life altering decisions.

              • Martha (Smith) says:

                Yes, being “overly certain” is a serious problem that can have serious negative consequences — yet so many people value and crave certainty — and many regard uncertainty as negative (e.g., because “It causes anxiety”).

          • Keith O'Rourke says:

            Freud did write once (In a project for a scientific psychology) that he did not think there would be a scientific psychology in his life time but he had no intention of changing careers.

            From this, I am speculating that he chose to be a careerist academic rather than a scientist.

            He may well have completely grasped that he had nothing to fear from other pesky academics trying to be scientific.

      • steven t johnson says:

        You know this because your self-report of your motives and feelings is truly authoritative. Unfortunately this sounds very much like using amour propre as a touchstone.

  15. Steve Sailer says:

    The bigger question is why Freud was so celebrated in his own time and immediately afterwards. Freud was very smart and extremely self-assured, but there have been more than a few people like that. But for about sixty years, Western Intellectuals took as a matter of course the idea that we lived in the Freudian Age.

    My guess has long been that Freud’s celebrity was a by-product of the the generational demographics of the Jewish Enlightenment. By, say, 1900 there were now a large number of brilliant young Jewish intellectuals, but there weren’t that many time-tested Jewish scientific sages for the young Jewish intellectuals to be proud of. There was Marx, but he definitely wasn’t for everybody. Then Freud came along and he filled in a missing gap for bourgeois non-radical young people looking for a hero of their own.

    After awhile, fortunately, there were lots of authentic Jewish scientific geniuses like Einstein to idolize, so the Freud cult eventually died out.

  16. That’s an interesting hypothesis Steve. My parent’s generation seemed to quote Freud and Jung a good deal. I don’t recall my generation talking about either. I think our concerns were existential; for example, desegregation, assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and John and Robert Kennedy.

    Sexual revolution had already mapped on to landscape. Perhaps one could discern the medicalization of psychology in last 40 years, spawning also antidepressants, counseling, and self help books, etc.

  17. Erin Jonaitis says:

    Interesting. I’m reminded of two people whose work I read with a sort of twin reaction: half of me said, look, this isn’t empirical at all, this is just a bunch of stylized anecdotes, but the other half said yeah, but it feels true. One was Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities and the other was a book of Erving Goffman’s essays. “Framework” does seem a good word for what they were each building with their writing.

    Do we think of physics as an empirical science? I’ve always found striking the division of labor in physics between theoretical and observational people, and especially in how early in their career trajectory it happens.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      I’d say that physics is sn “empirico-mathematical” science — as described in Wigner’s article “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences”. (See .org/wiki/The_Unreasonable_Effectiveness_of_Mathematics_in_the_Natural_Sciences if you’re not familiar with this.)

      Theoretical physics is essentially mathematical physics, which to a great extent explains the early choice of theoretical vs empirical orientation: those most mathematically inclined tend to go the theoretical route. However, some physicists who are theoretically/mathematical inclined may become (at least partly) experimentalists, if they have a burning desire to e.g., check the theory, or to get observational data that can help distinguish between two otherwise equally plausible theories, or understand “exceptions to the rule” that can help refine a theory.

      In social sciences, the theories do not have the strong mathematical underpinning, so are a very different ball of wax than in physics. In particular, in social sciences, it is very tempting to engage in “armchair theorizing” based on one’s own expereinces.

  18. StephenLaudig says:

    Biologists? economists? May I suggest he be compared to Madame Larue or perhaps literary critics….

  19. Toby says:

    I’m not a psychologist nor have I read Freud. But I do have a background in economics and I am familiar with some of its history. And if I base myself on Popper’s criticism that Freud’s theories could never be disproven and therefore they’re not scientific, then I would argue that this criticism doesn’t apply to the theories of 19th and 18th century economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo.

    Take David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage for example, this is a framework how to think about trade (between nations) but it also will tell you who would be willing to trade with whom based on the relative costs of production. The theory comes with a prediction that could be wrong.

    Or take Adam Smith’s example of the pin factory. Again this is framework how to think about the division of labor but it also tells you that breaking up a task in smaller parts can raise the output per worker. This is a statement that could be wrong. Similarly, the effect he describes that dividing a task into smaller parts has on the individual (“alienation”) is a statement that can be verified.

    From what I’ve read about Freud his theories would always survive such a test because there is always an alternative explanation that is consistent with the theory.

    Now I won’t disagree with the fact that economists such as John Stuart Mill have written about the difficulty of testing economic theories because there are always some intervening causes that could invalidate a test of a theory. But this is nothing more than the precursor of auxiliary hypothesis problem that plagues all (observational) studies. I don’t think that this makes the theories of early economists comparable to the theories of Freud as described by Popper. Early economics seems more similar to Darwin’s theory of evolution in terms of its logical status.

    Then again I haven’t read Freud so perhaps there are examples in Freud that are comparable to say a theory of comparative advantage. I’d be happy to revise my views upon hearing about such examples.

  20. Martha (Smith) says:

    Interesting post.

    Yet it gets me to thinking that there is a lot in common about Freud’s theories, other psychological theories, economic theories, and most biological theories: They all involve situations with a lot of variability between individual cases (whether people, economies, or organisms), so it would be questionable that “one theory predicts all cases” in any of them.

    OK, so I went back and reread Andrew’s original post, and maybe what I said above is not relevant. But I still hadn’t clicked on the link to Andrew’s Washington Post article. Having done that, maybe a way to say what I am thinking is: That Andrew has a good point about frameworks. But what I think needs some emphasis is this: Frameworks (as he said) can influence how science is done. In particular, they may sometimes assist scientific inquiry, but can also (perhaps more often?) hinder it. Also, Andrew has neglected to mention one important type of framework that often influences science: religion. Indeed, religion is sometimes regarded as a means of making sense of the complexity and (often) (perceived) incomprehensibility of the world around us.

    So where does Freud fit? I’d say closer to religion than to either economics or biology.

  21. gregor says:

    It seems like very early social science was primarily an extension of biological science. Think guys like Galton, Pearson, Fisher, Spearman, early anthropology, and so on (basically the people who invented modern statistics, incidentally). Then in the 20th century we see the proliferation of “modern” social science (sociology, Freudian psychology, “cultural” anthropology, modern economics vs the classic “political economy”). And while it’s been wildly successful in terms of growing share of university resources, in terms of practical and intellectual value it has more or less amounted to a lost century, in my opinion.

    • jrc says:

      Technocratic improvements in the organization and management of people (the products of the technical social sciences) have been hugely beneficial to billions of people:

      The study of human societies has driven how we perceive the justness of our own society and our vision of who we want to be.

      Modern pyschotherapy has improved the daily lives of tens or hundreds of millions of people and prevented millions of suicides.

      The study of human cultures allows us perspectives on our own lives that were unavailable to any previous society, and to the extent that imagination relies on inputs from the world, has almost certainly increased our cultural and economic productivity.

      And modern economic growth, though unequally distributed, has improved billions of peoples lives.

      Yes, there is a huge amount of terrible research out there. Most of it. But it was always that way. And just because the “contributions” of the social sciences aren’t always “good”, they have certainly broadened human understanding and proved incredibly productive at improving peoples lives.

      Or maybe you just don’t think it should require 1,000 academics spouting out basically useless research to keep all of that knowledge alive…?

      • Martha (Smith) says:

        There remain some questions, such as:

        While the technological improvements have been beneficial to billions of people, do they come along with harm to others? And what is the balance between benefit and harm? And who are the recipients of the most benefits and the most harm? If those that “already have” get the most benefit, and those that “start without” have the most harm, then the net benefit is not good.

        Has the study of human societies driven different people’s perceptions of the justness of their own society and their vision of who they want to be in directions that are harmful to themselves or others?

        Has modern psychotherapy also deteriorated the daily lives of many people or increased suicides in some groups of people?

        How many people’s lives have deteriorated as a result of modern economic growth?

        In other words, have we actively looked for and recorded negative effects as well as positive ones? Negative effects of new drugs often come to light considerably after initial studies promote the use of those drugs. Yet at least there is some effort to report them. I don’t think there is such an effort in other areas of research that are considered as leading to improvements.

        • Anonymous says:

          + 1

          This (almost) never gets mentioned concerning social science: the possible negative effects of their interventions, science, media-communacation, etc. I think it’s really unresponsible, and unethical, that this is not getting way more attention.

      • gregor says:

        The phenomenon of modern economic growth began around 1800 with the industrial revolution and macroeconomists had nothing to do with it.

      • gregor says:

        “Or maybe you just don’t think it should require 1,000 academics spouting out basically useless research to keep all of that knowledge alive…?”

        I think these domains are so susceptible to BS and activism that it’s generally best done at levels where there’s some feedback mechanism to sanity check the results. The military has done plenty of research into organizational behavior and psychology, but they “eat their own cooking” so to speak. Marketing is a sort of applied psychology but again with more accountability than academics which relies on peer review and citations (allowing for self-perpetuating BS).

        Please don’t misunderstand: I don’t object to scholarship for sake of scholarship (the names I’ve already mentioned are good examples). But the main accountability there is a sort of scholastic honor and intellectual curiosity which breaks down entirely when fields get commandeered by activists and careerists.

        • I like that point ‘marketing is a sort of applied psychology’. In reverse applied psychology is a type of marketing. More so today.

        • Martha (smith) says:

          ” Marketing is a sort of applied psychology but again with more accountability than academics which relies on peer review and citations (allowing for self-perpetuating BS).”

          I’m not convinced there is more accountability. Case in point: The marketing of opioids for pain.

  22. My exposure to Freud is somewhat idiosyncratic – I tried to read “Interpretation of Dreams,” but failed to get through it. “Totem and Taboo,” “Civilization and its Discontents,” and “Moses and Monotheism” were another matter altogether. I found myself comparing his work to Oswald Spengler, José Ortega y Gasset, or Georges Sorel, world historical thinkers, whose claims were entirely non-falsifiabe. Marx & Engels probably belong to this category as well, but their work was from a different era and reflected a very different mind set. Besides Freud is a better writer; he is maybe the best German essayist of the 20th Century. He is very readable even in English.

  23. I forgot to add Civilization and its Discontents. It was insightful for me.

    I agree that Freud very readable. I read several of these books in my teens. I don’t recall which of his insights impressed me most. His writing was probably the draw for me. Interpretation of Dreams, like you, I don’t recall finishing. Again Freud was influential for my parents’ generation.

  24. Note here Sigmund Freud ranked 1st.

    Graham Colditz ranked 2nd

  25. Lo and behold Pierre Bourdieu ranks 6th.

    So two of the top ten I have read and corresponded with. Yippy yo caye

  26. Add Ron Kessler who I have met and heard

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