Ethics & Public Policy Center

Freud Analyzed

Published in Books & Culture on January 1, 1999


Michael Cromartie interviewed scholar Paul Vitz about Freud and his legacy. Vitz is professor of psychology at New York University. He is the author of more than 100 articles and four books, including Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious (1988). Vitz and Cromartie spoke via telephone.

Although his psychoanalytic empire is in disarray, weakened by assaults from without and divided by bitter internecine rivalry into a thousand squabbling fiefdoms, Sigmund Freud still casts a long shadow. True, “the Viennese quack,” as Vladimir Nabokov dubbed him, is no longer enshrined in the pantheon of science, but who can deny that Freud has been Very Influential?

To take the measure of that influence, the Library of Congress planned an exhibit, scheduled to open in 1996, called “Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture.” Late in 1995, however, after a number of scholars signed a petition calling for the proposed exhibit to “adequately reflect the full spectrum of informed opinion about the status of Freud’s contributions,” the show was postponed. The library cited budgetary reasons, but most observers attributed the action to the controversy raised by critics of the advisory board, which was heavily stacked with Freud partisans such as biographer and historian Peter Gay.

Predictably, the New York Times weighed in with the judgment that the “never-ending backlash against Freud confirms the potency of his theories.” (Heads, I win; tails, you lose.) Peter Gay agreed. “Freud’s message is really hard to take,” he said, implying that the critics needed psychotherapy.

After a long delay, the exhibit, curated by Michael Roth, finally opened in October 1998.

What is the state of the debate concerning Freud today? Why is he still such a controversial figure?

There are two kinds of controversy. First, there is controversy over Freud the man and what kind of person he was. There is a lot of evidence that, as he himself said, he was an “intellectual conquistador.” He was an intellectual ideologue and conqueror. He was in no way a scientist. He was not even a fair clinician in the sense that he was always misrepresenting what he had found. He was frequently rather deceptive. And in addition, he seems to have had some unsavory personal characteristics that have lately been made public.

But the major critiques of Freud are not personal. They aim at the intellectual structure of the system. Freud himself, and many other Freudians when these ideas of his were first proposed, claimed that psychoanalysis had achieved the status of a science. These proponents held that Freud’s themes were an application of the natural scientific tradition to the realm of the mind. Those pretensions are gone now. Today virtually no one believes that Freud’s understanding of the mind has had any impact whatsoever on traditional science.

Some of the critics have said that psychoanalysis is really an “interpretive” science rather than an empirical science.

Yes, it is what I would call an applied philosophy of life. In fact, that is what all psychotherapies are. So therefore, psychoanalysis is no more an empirical or naturalistic science than Stoicism, if you will. The Oedipus Complex, for example, is as far from being proven today as it was at the time of Freud.

In fact, even most psychoanalysts have given up trying to claim that they are practicing science. That is a big shift. Nowadays many important Freudians talk about psychoanalysis as a kind of storytelling, or mutual narrative interaction. They are getting deeply into hermeneutics and narrative theories. Once you understand psychoanalysis as the construction of a story about the person’s life, then you have a very different understanding of Freud. It can be helpful, but it leaves the issue of whether it is true or not somewhere behind, and it certainly leaves behind the issue of whether it is scientific.

Freud scholar Harold Blum said Freud is generally recognized as a figure of immense cultural importance. He changed the way we understand drama, history, and biography and gave us a new picture of how a person becomes a person. Do you agree?

It is certainly true now. How long will this last? We do not know whether this is a permanent contribution. But Freud has certainly made the psychological understanding of people a phenomenon that affects our response to all those things: literature, drama, the history of a person, historical understanding, biography—all of that has changed.

Is that influence on the wane?

Yes, and for a number of reasons. While Freud’s initial impact was profound, it has been absorbed or completed. Also, psychotherapy today is preoccupied, on the one hand, with medication, and on the other hand, with behavioral and cognitive strategies for dealing with very specialized symptoms and problems. Freud’s influence is on the wane because he had nothing to contribute to the biochemical nature of mental problems or to the behavioral and cognitive strategies of dealing with particular anxieties or phobias.

So there is no revival of psychoanalysis, as far as you can tell, among your colleagues.

Not as far as I can tell. Psychoanalysis is continuing to feel the impact of its critics, and its influence is steadily dwindling. For example, 30 years ago most of the departments of psychiatry in the medical schools were headed up by a Freudian. Today, I do not know if any are. It is all neuroscience/biochemistry in psychiatry. There haven’t been any major new psychoanalytic ideas for quite some time.

Perhaps equally significant is the impact of health maintenance organizations. HMOs have had a negative impact on all forms of long-term psychotherapy because they simply will not pay for it. They’ll give you seven, maybe fourteen, sessions, and that means that there is a terrific emphasis on short-term, positive results. So the people who are in psychoanalysis today largely must pay for it out of their own pocket. Its primary appeal today is to people who want an intellectual understanding of themselves and of the world from the perspective of psychoanalysis, a kind of psychological Stoicism imbued with the tragic view of life.

You say that Freud’s intellectual credibility is on the wane, but his influence is everywhere in the popular culture—especially in the way we see our own personal past, and in the way we view sexuality. Are there any positive insights that we have gained from Freud?

He invented a number of major approaches. He invented the notion of psychotherapy, the “talking cure,” as we understand it today. He brought attention to the importance of early childhood, namely the effects of trauma, distortion, and other phenomena in the first three years of life. His primary focus on child development was from the third year on, but he did talk about the earlier years as well, and later psychoanalysts have developed many theories based on the first two years of life. He was the first to show that the kind of bendings that take place in childhood can lead to later mental pathologies.

This is positive because it has made us much more aware of the impact of childhood experience and its long-term consequences. The only psychological interpretations we have of early childhood traumas as determining later mental pathologies are a part of the psychoanalytic tradition of Freud. There are no Jungian theories of that. Psychoanalysis is the only game in town.

Would you agree that one of the negative consequences of focusing on the importance of early childhood is that, while gaining insights, some people just stay there, and they blame irresponsible behavior on childhood experiences, never seeming to move forward?

Absolutely. They become permanent victims stuck in the past and unable to move beyond it. They blame their parents or someone else for their problems without seeing their own responsibility. We live at a time when Americans in general probably have a more benevolent environment than at any time in history, and yet, for millions of people, we are a nation of victims. If it weren’t so prevalent it would be pathetic.

Would Freud himself have encouraged people to gain insight and then move on?
I don’t think Freud would have had much patience with the late twentieth-century American wallowing in victimhood. In fact, I think it would have appalled him. A number of things he said indicate this. First, there is his aphorism “Where Id was, Ego will be.” Which is another way of saying, once you understand what is going on, you put it in the realm of more conscious control. Another thing he once said was “the best psychoanalysis can do is to return the patient to the more normal level of human misery.” In other words, he knew there was a normal level of human misery, that life is difficult, and that while psychoanalysis can help you get through some of the more knotty problems, it will not alter the basic facts of our existence. Many Americans think that if they are feeling bad, somebody is to blame.

I would say that Freud had a tragic view of life. He believed that our response to life’s tragedy should be like our response to a Greek tragedy. Knowledge is helpful for understanding. But let’s face it: it is still a tragedy.

Jonathan Lear, writing in The New Republic about the Freud controversy and the Library of Congress exhibit, said, “The real object of attack by Freud’s critics is the very idea of humans having unconscious motivation.”

I do not think that is true. The critics are attacking a variety of things. But certainly there are critics who, for example, deny that “repression” even exists. They acknowledge that you might have trouble remembering early experiences, but they would argue that this difficulty is just a memory retrieval problem based upon how far back the event was in time, how you happened to code it, the absence of any verbal cues because, perhaps, you did not have a mastery of language when this event occurred, and so on. They would contend that there is no evidence for active rejection from the conscious mind; no act of repression, if you will.

Do you believe that humans are guided by unconscious motivation?

Unconscious motivation is an important factor in human behavior, but the question we must first answer is whether it is the “Freudian” unconscious or some other kind of unconscious. For example, the Freudian unconscious is primarily sexual and often aggressive. It is interesting that not one of the other later great psychologists, Jung, or Adler, or Horney, or Rogers, or Maslow, emphasized the unconscious nearly as much as Freud did, and none of them emphasized sex to the degree that he did.

What about other positive aspects of Freud’s legacy?

He has made us aware of the psychological complexity of human beings and the importance of the psychological life. This is both positive and negative. He has been part of the great movement in the last century from the objective to the subjective. I think the historical jury is still out on the consequences of that. We’re quite aware that we have become so subjective that we’re running into the danger of the loss of any notion of objective truth. On the other hand, he may have made available to the Christian world an understanding of the interior life that begins psychologically and develops spiritually; that is, he has made us aware of the whole domain from which the spiritual life can naturally evolve.

Many people did not understand the notion of our psychological interior. Freud has made it clear what that interior might look like. Now most of this is psychological, of course, not spiritual, but this understanding could be a kind of preparation for moving from the psychological interior life to the spiritual interior life.

What were his negative contributions?

There are several negative features to Freud’s legacy. First, he emphasized sexuality way past its natural importance. Second, he emphasized that sexuality was always repressed and that it was desirable if it was brought into the open. Over time this doctrine has led to our pornographic culture. He was the first to argue that repressed sexuality was at the source of neurosis—a theory that gained wide acceptance and had a far-reaching cultural influence despite the lack of any supporting evidence.

He also heavily emphasized the past as a deterministic system. Here he was simply assimilating the prevailing nineteenth-century model of causality and applying it to human behavior. He was inconsistent; he did not apply this model in everyday life. So, for instance, in his disputes with former friends and associates, such as Jung and Adler, he did not excuse their behavior as the result of past experiences. But he provided a logic for the notion that we are not responsible for our behavior. One of the things psychology, psychotherapy, and psychoanalysis have done is to introduce the idea that people are not responsible for a large amount of their behavior.

This takes away any formal judgment of irresponsible behavior.

Right. It is not your fault but your father’s fault, or your unconscious early trauma, or your mother’s fault, and so forth. We need to say, “Yes, you have this pressure to deal with. Now deal with it.” That is one of the foremost challenges for contemporary psychology: How do we bring responsibility back in without violating our ever-deepening understanding of the complexities of human experience?

Any other major negative contributions?

Another thing is that everything becomes psychological. Psychology expanded so that if you have an allergy, or asthma, or you are obsessive, or compulsive, this has a psychological origin. Psychology can even explain religion, uncovering your religious motivation. Psychology lies behind every form of behavioral or medical pathology. The pushing of psychology as the cause of everything is Freud’s legacy. The whole therapeutic mentality had its origins in Freud.

Freud says in The Future of an Illusion that God was nothing but the wishful emotional clinging to a childhood father figure transformed into a supernatural being. He says this: “Men cannot remain children forever; they must go out into hostile life. We may call this ‘education to reality.’ Need I confess to you that the sole purpose of my book is to point out the necessity for this forward step?”

The problem is that there is no evidence for Freud’s theory of religion. I just finished a book on the psychological origins of atheism, which should be published in 1999. I discovered a few important things about Freud’s understanding of religion. First, there is no published case in which Freud psychoanalyzed any patient who was a believer at the time of the psychoanalysis. Second, there is no published case showing how such a belief in a client was supposed to be the result of early childhood fantasies.

Furthermore, Freud himself, who proposed the Oedipus Complex, said we should all hate our father unconsciously and wish to replace him. If that is the case, why would we replace him with a supernatural father? In fact, Freud’s theory clearly predicts that we should all be atheists, because atheism is the desire to get rid of the Oedipal father, and we should all have an unconscious, irrational, and neurotic basis for atheism. Hatred for the father should be the source of atheism. By the way, in my book, I found a lot of evidence that atheists do in fact show this psychology.

Freud’s idea that belief in God is childish while letting go of God is a form of maturity, is widespread in our culture. However, it is this rejection of God that is really adolescent. All modernism can be seen as a giant adolescent rebellion, with a focus on sex and aggression. As we mature and come out of it, we recover the wisdom of childhood.

Is there anything else we need to learn from Freud?

Christianity has always been, in many respects, about healing. Not just physical healing in the hospital, but also emotional healing. It is probably no accident that about the time mainline churches began ignoring this, about a hundred years ago, a new form of emotional healing—this time secular—came into being. In other words, liberal Christian theology and religion ignored the healing power of the faith.

One person who saw this clearly was Jung, who said that he hardly knew anyone 35 or older who wasn’t facing a religious crisis. But where religion was truly functioning in people’s lives, neurotic problems were dramatically less. So, Jung said, I have to take over the role, strictly speaking, of theologian or priest. And he did just this, but in a perverse fashion.

There was a huge psychological need for healing that the churches had neglected, and so the secular world picked it up and ran with it. Now I see the churches waking up on this issue.

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