Sigmund Freud remains underrated

by on August 17, 2017 at 2:28 am in Books, History, Philosophy, Science | Permalink

Where to even begin enumerating the wealth of fruitful work — some of it highly critical — that continues to emerge from real engagement with Freud’s ideas? Consider Marina Warner’s musings on Freud’s mediation of Eastern and Western cultural tropes told through the story of his Oriental carpet-draped couch; Rubén Gallo’s panoramic exploration of the reception of Freud’s work in Mexico and the reciprocal influence of Mexican culture on Freud; and the rich medley of sociopolitical critiques grounded in Lacan’s reinterpretation of Freud’s thought.

The idea that large parts of our mental life remain obscure or even entirely mysterious to us; that we benefit from attending to the influence of these depths upon our surface selves, our behaviors, language, dreams and fantasies; that we can sometimes be consumed by our childhood familial roles and even find ourselves re-enacting them as adults; that our sexuality might be as ambiguous and multifaceted as our compendious emotional beings and individual histories — these core conceits, in the forms they circulate among us, are indebted to Freud’s writings. Now that we’ve effectively expelled Freud from the therapeutic clinic, have we become less neurotic? With that baneful “illusion” gone, and with all our psychopharmaceuticals and empirically grounded cognitive therapy techniques firmly in place, can we assert that we’ve advanced toward some more rational state of mental health than that enjoyed by our forebears in the heyday of analysis? Indeed, with a commander in chief who often seems to act entirely out of the depths of a dark unconscious, we might all do better to read more, not less, of Freud.

That is from an excellent NYT book review by George Prochnik.

1 Matt August 17, 2017 at 2:40 am

Like a lot of pro-Freud things, it seems to me that this confuses the question of whether Freud noticed some real, perhaps unknown and unexpected, phenomena, and whether this explanations for those phenomena are any good. The answer to the first question seems pretty clearly yes (though there are some misses, too, I think.) The answer to the second question is, I think, at least much less favorable to Freud. (I’d say he got very little right here, and even the bits he got right are messed in with wrong stuff in a way that makes them unhelpful.) We might think that he’s more like Kepler and less like Newton in this way, though I think that’s giving him a bit too much credit, still. If this is right, then it’s no wonder that Freud is of little use in therapy and practice, and mostly a historical footnote.

2 dearieme August 17, 2017 at 7:16 am

There’s also a question of how original his points were. I’ve no idea: would anyone care to enlighten me?

3 Art Deco August 17, 2017 at 10:28 am

Freud is of little use in therapy and practice, and mostly a historical footnote.

It’s basically pills and pep talks nowadays, if the doctor ever takes his nose out of his computer screen. Not that that’s necessarily better or worse than what the LCSW or PsyD has in stock.

The worst scandals in recent years have been fanciful claims of mass sexual abuse (Gary Ramona, the McMartins) and Andrea Yates. The pill dispensers teamed up with dopey feminists who write newspaper columns to stick the bill for the latter with Yates hapless husband and the pastor who hadn’t seen them in several years.

4 Ted Craig August 17, 2017 at 11:14 am

You need to go to a shrink, if for no other reason than to see that your portrayal of them is fairly inaccurate.

5 Art Deco August 17, 2017 at 3:41 pm

It actually is accurate. Sorry that bothers you.

6 Ted Craig August 17, 2017 at 9:32 pm

I’m not bothered, but you obviously are.

7 msgkings August 17, 2017 at 1:17 pm

Also for the reason that you are nuts.

8 Art Deco August 17, 2017 at 3:42 pm

Thanks for the input, Tyler.

9 msgkings August 17, 2017 at 4:21 pm

If that’s really you, Art, I’m flattered that I’ve gone from being incorrectly tagged as a paid intern of Tyler’s to being incorrectly tagged as Tyler himself.

10 Steve Sailer August 17, 2017 at 3:20 am

I find a few of Freud’s ideas, such as “projection,” useful, but there seems like a remarkable amount of dross and hokum in Freudianism. I don’t see how anybody can justify the absurd level of deference that Freud was granted in roughly 1920-1980.

My hypothesis is that Freud’s inflated reputation was largely due to the huge number of brilliant Jews who emerged in the 20th Century, but who didn’t have many Jewish geniuses to look back upon with ethnocentric pride.

There was Marx, of course, but many Jews were rightly leery of committing to Marxism. So, the more conservative among Jewish intellectuals found Freud highly appealing as a cultural hero, vaguely undermining gentile civility and respectability without threatening a dictatorship of the proletariat.

Since then, fortunately, Jews have produced a sizable number of authentic geniuses such as Einstein, so there is less need for inflating the reputations of cult leaders like Freud.

11 Joël August 17, 2017 at 9:05 am

Einstein? Eisenstein? Ricardo? Too bad they had only Freud…

12 Maz August 17, 2017 at 11:19 am

Those three didn’t create far-ranging life philosophies for secularized Jews to follow.

13 Brian Donohue August 17, 2017 at 9:59 am

That doesn’t sound right. Jordan Peterson has argued that Freud made profound contributions to the study of psychology, but all the good stuff has been incorporated into the edifice and is no longer regarded as “Freudian”, and nowadays people associate Freud with some of his more fare-flung, less tenable ideas.

BTW Tyler, you have a history of wondering where the public intellectuals have gone. Peterson seems like a remarkable fellow, but nary a peep from you about him. Are you anti-Canadian?

14 Careless August 17, 2017 at 10:25 am

Are you anti-Canadian?

When Alex absolutely has to be let into Tyler’s house, he’s forced to come in through the servant’s entrance

15 msgkings August 17, 2017 at 1:18 pm


16 Art Deco August 17, 2017 at 10:16 am

My hypothesis is that Freud’s inflated reputation was largely due to the huge number of brilliant Jews who emerged in the 20th Century, but who didn’t have many Jewish geniuses to look back upon with ethnocentric pride.

You might attempt a better hypothesis. Try this: psychiatrists in 1920 were employed in the rather drab job of supervising warehouses of insane and addled people they did not know what to do with. Most of them thought their charges had suffered neurological damage, but they didn’t have a clue what it was. So, they were very vulnerable to all manner of fads. Psychosurgery was one, psychoanalysis was another. Talk therapists had has some success during the 2d World War in getting shellshocked soldiers back to the front, and that gave them a great deal of prestige which they retained for about 20 years after the war, after which there began a slow leak which turned into a rapid implosion after 1980. (By contrast, it was clear by 1955 that Walter Freeman had done an appalling amount of damage to people; talk therapists just take your money; they don’t leave you a wreck for life like Rosemary Kennedy).

17 Art Deco August 17, 2017 at 10:19 am

You’ve forgotten that as late as 1940, about 3/4 of psychiatrists worked in asylums. Psychiatrists find demented people (whether the dementia arises from peri-natal accidents, senility, or schizophrenia) boring and demoralizing. An office practice where you listen to the talk of people much like yourself all day is agreeable if you can persuade yourself you’re doing any good. Pays well too. See Rael Jean Isaac and Fuller Torrey on the transformation of psychiatry in the post-war era.

18 prior_test3 August 17, 2017 at 4:00 am

For a man whose connection to empirical science is essentially zero, that is.

19 GHQ August 17, 2017 at 4:30 am

Freud had his lower jaw removed due to cancer. His surgeon urged him to give up his cigar habit、forecasting that the cancer would reappear, which it did. Why didn’t he quit? “I like cigars”, he answered. According to Clark’s earlier biography.

Freud’s new ideas were not correct, while his correct ideas were not new. He did a lot to popularize them, obviously (Bertrand Russell was a believer, at least for a while), but his staying power owed much to Hitchcock and other creative people who found the ideas (repressed memories and such) useful for dramatic story-telling.

20 Steve Sailer August 17, 2017 at 5:54 am

As scientists, how different were Freud and his American competitor L. Ron Hubbard?

Keep in mind that Hubbard invented his Dianetics as a low-cost DIY talk therapy to get around the extreme expense of Freudian talk therapy at a time when there was much unmet demand for talk therapy, especially from veterans suffering PTSD (like Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master”).

Granted, Freud’s cultists tended to be higher IQ than Hubbard’s cultists. But, as movie stars and directors, the Scientologists seem to have outlasted the Freudians.

21 Mark Thorson August 17, 2017 at 9:40 am

It helps to create an abusive cult to propagate your ideas. Another brilliant innovation on the part of Hubbard was creating a heirarchy of levels, so his followers always had another level to aspire to. They could also feel superior to those who were at lower levels. That’s part of the appeal of Scientology for people who stick with it.

22 Steve Sailer August 17, 2017 at 6:34 pm

It helps to create an abusive cult to propagate your ideas.


Like I asked, how, different, really were Freud’s and Hubbard’s cults?

23 efim polenov August 17, 2017 at 10:54 pm

Well since Jerry Pournelle is not here to give the correct answer, I will give it a try. Freud had a pretty good knowledge of western literature, Hubbard had a pretty good knowledge of the popular literature of his day. Freud and Hubbard were each physically comical looking (remember when they added Curly Joe to the Stooges and everyone said, yes, if there were another stooge, that is what he would look like? – well, Freud and Hubbard are Curly Joes – and for a certain sort of person to whom actual love with an actual person does not (often through no fault of their own) take up much space in their life, that is the perfect imagery for an all-too-easy-to-follow (sad!) intellectual leader.) Back in the day, each was able to be quoted – in the newsletters and their equivalents – on about a dozen or so interesting subjects every week, on average, and for the sort of person with a mental eccentricity that leads them, for example, to like to have ice cream after every meal (eventually – and this happened to a friend of mine’s mother, when the Alzheimer’s kicked in – even after breakfast), that meant that there was a in 10,000 chance of getting addicted to waiting for the next thing a Freud or a Hubbard might say, and spending the time awaiting the next pronouncement making (evanescent) mental palaces or reassuring mental structures out of the previously expressed details of the world-views of the addictive oracles. One in 10,000 readers is a lot of readers even for the mid-level writers from back then. (None of us should do that – get addicted to what writers might say or do say – for anybody, not even Shakespeare, who is very interesting but just did not understand the importance of time and friendship in the best lives that we can live. Sad! If you are interested in this sort of thing, some literate Vietnamese made a sort of God of poor Victor Hugo, who was really just some teen-age French guy who just wanted to grow up to get a gig being a poet someday, a hundred years and more ago. True story. I mean, Hugo had a few good things to say, but he wasn’t exactly not an ignoramus on most of the important things that real men and women care about, like life, true unselfish love, God, nature, justice, and so on. Just saying.). In the event, the Freud addicts were better read, but the Hubbard addicts liked to be entertained too, so it is not like the Freudians were all that much more bored by life than they would have been if they had chosen some other sad addiction: and as Rush would say, for Hubbard: ditto.

24 Brian Donohue August 18, 2017 at 8:21 am

Kinda harsh on Hugo I think. Les Mis evinced a broad and fair understanding of humanity IMHO.

25 efim polenov August 18, 2017 at 9:27 pm

I think you are right about Hugo. I felt bad about that as I was writing it (although the part with the bishop at the beginning of Les Mis was agitprop – still, the sheer sprezzatura of a typical young French intellectual go-getter thinking he could understand the thoughts of what he claimed was a saintly old bishop is, in its way, absolutely amusing. I wish more writers tried things like that). (if you are interested in my rhetorical stumbles, I thought the double negative earlier in the sentence (wasn’t exactly not an ignoramus) would signal that I was about to say the sort of unfair negative things about Hugo that he unfairly said about others, but I forgot the humble qualifier at the end of the relevant portion of the rant – ‘Just saying’ was not the right choice of words.)

26 rayward August 17, 2017 at 6:28 am

WWFD. What Would Freud Do. About Donald Trump, a man obviously suffering from some mental defect. I suppose Freud would blame it on Trump’s overbearing and critical father. Parents, why do we always get the blame for bad children? Because it lets the children off the hook. I understand the clinical purpose, which is to free bad children from guilt so they can be open to therapy (to cure what somebody else did to them). But wouldn’t it make more sense to make children accept responsibility for their own actions rather than to absolve the little darlings of responsibility. It’s clear that Trump assumes no responsibility for his own actions. He must have been to a therapist who practiced WWFD.


27 Ali Choudhury August 17, 2017 at 6:44 am

Trump is not mentally defective. He is typical of a lot of entrepreneurs who have never had to be answerable to a boss. He follows his instincts, doesn’t take advice well, brags endlessly about his wealth and accomplishments, gets very agitated when he is thwarted and is a perpetual optimist. That served him well during the campaign and he has only had the job for a few months. The 2020 election will be a referendum on what he has done in the eighteen months prior, what’s happening now will be forgotten and forgiven as teething problems by those who voted or him in 2016.

28 daguix August 17, 2017 at 7:33 am

Wow +1000. Trump just has to remain over a certain threshold of popularity up until 18-month prior to the 2020 election. If he slips under 20% popularity it will be doomed for him anyway. It is like 5000m running or a stage in a cycling tour with the yellow jersey. Any fresh political challenger will be by definition at 50% popularity. It never happened in the US in recent history but happened in France recently.

29 msgkings August 17, 2017 at 1:25 pm

Is narcissism a mental defect? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but if Trump doesn’t have narcissistic personality disorder then those words have no meaning. Which may be the case but I feel like that’s a real thing.

30 prior_test3 August 17, 2017 at 4:09 pm

Almost actual Trump quote – ‘I own a house in Charlottesville. Does anyone know I own a house in Charlottesville?

Oh boy, it’s gonna be … it’s in Charlottesville. It is my narcissistic personality disorder. I mean, I know a lot about Charlottesville. Charlottesville is a great place that’s been very badly hurt over the last couple of days. I own actually one of the largest narcissistic personality disorders in the United States, it’s in Charlottesville.’

31 daguix August 17, 2017 at 7:01 am

Sigmund Freud is a fraud and the so-called freudian psychanalysis is thriving industry only interested in perpetuating the myth for money. Freud never healed anyone, was a cocaine addict, killed several patients through reckless behaviour, was a sympathizer of fascism, misogynist and homophobic, cheating his wife with her sister, only driven by greed and an intense desire to become a star. The inconscious/subconscious is a pure fictional creation and has no scientific proof. His philosophy is a bad plagiarism from Nietzsche, who he never cited.
He tried to convince the world his nevrotic fantasy of having sex with his mother and killing his father was a universal truth. I am sorry but this has never been mine and neither yours.

In conclusion, Sigmund Freud as a scientist/philosopher is way over-rated. But the psychanalysis business industry he launched is way under-rated. $100 for a 1-hour weekly monologue based on no science, that’s incredibly good business.

32 daguix August 17, 2017 at 7:06 am

And of course, Nietzsche remains the most under-rated thinker of all time.

33 RPLong August 17, 2017 at 10:20 am

This would have been a good comment if you hadn’t have followed it up with this reply.

34 William Gadea August 17, 2017 at 7:12 am

Overrated as a scientist, underrated as a crypto-poet.

35 VD August 17, 2017 at 7:50 am

You need to actually read the latest Crews biography. Freud is best read as philosophy or literature. It is not hyperbole when Popper or Crews state that there is zero empirical support for any of Freud’s ideas. I am a psychiatrist at an academic center, and the most heartwarming thing I have seen over the past years is how the number of Freudians steadily decreases as the old school dies out. Not one of the bright young psychiatry residents has pursued anything related to Freud. It says something when those seriously interested in Marx and Freud are English professors, and not physicians or economists.

36 prior_test3 August 17, 2017 at 4:20 pm

No question about Freud, but Marx remains a notable figure in the eyes of some economists, when seen as economist,

Here, for example – ‘To sum up, we all know that capitalism brings a “creative destruction,” to use the phrase of Schumpeter. This is all for the better, but Marx saw how strong both the positive and negative sides of this process would be. And he knew that the relevant problems went deeper than just looking at whether people make rational tradeoffs at the margin. That being said, he overestimated the negative side of the market and underestimated how well capitalism could solve its problems concerning the distribution of income.

Of course marxism, as a political program, remains dangerous nonsense. Marx’s blind spots were enormous, and I still cannot understand how generations of the intelligentsia were taken in by the whole thing.’

It is always a challenge to keep the various aspects of Marx apart, but here is that modern economist’s opinion about Marx the economist ten years later – ‘We should always be willing to learn from the past, and I do count Marx, for all his flaws, among the great economists. But we should not forget that he was in fact wrong about most things, not just about the totally impractical nature of his communist alternative.’

37 Judah Benjamin Hur August 17, 2017 at 8:03 am

When I was a little kid, I felt very ill and my Mom took me to the doctor. My father was out of town at the time. The doctor said I was just reacting to my father being away. A few days later I almost died of pneumonia.

Leave the looking for “under the surface” explanations to philosophers and comic book writers.

38 Art Deco August 17, 2017 at 10:24 am

Did she take you to a shrink, a GP, or a pediatrician? If she took you to a shrink, doesn’t she bear some of the responsibility for that fiasco?

39 Judah Benjamin Hur August 17, 2017 at 10:42 am

A pediatrician.

40 Art Deco August 17, 2017 at 3:47 pm

Since it was a pretty bonehead maneuver on his part, I assume you switched doctors after that.

41 Ted Craig August 17, 2017 at 8:10 am

As a philosopher, yes. As a psychologist, no.

42 Art Deco August 17, 2017 at 10:22 am

I think you mean ‘man of letters’, not philosopher.

43 Fazal Majid August 17, 2017 at 8:33 am

Let’s not forget the utterly crackpot theories of “Moses and Monotheism”. Perhaps Freud is best understood as a Dada precursor.

44 Aylok August 17, 2017 at 9:03 am

“No, Freud isn’t a discredited purveyor of nonsense! Just look how much he influenced Lacan!”

45 Roger Sweeny August 17, 2017 at 9:10 am

Freud thought the mind was a steam engine. Now we know it is a computer.

46 Josh August 17, 2017 at 11:03 am

Lol. Winner.

47 Mark Thorson August 17, 2017 at 11:49 am

Actually, it’s a smartphone.

48 VD August 17, 2017 at 9:31 am

In reference to the above Crews book, here is an excellent article on Freud and the types of people who come under his sway that he published in Commentary in 1980:

49 Aretino August 17, 2017 at 10:27 am

“Now that we’ve effectively expelled Freud from the therapeutic clinic …”

Freud’s disappearance has been greatly overrated. About 1/3 of therapists in the US employ primarily psychodynamic approaches to treatment, which derive from Freud. And outside the United States, Freudian and Freud-derived approaches (particularly Lacan) continue to dominate. In some parts of the world, psychoanalysis continues to be popular, especially in Argentina.

50 Art Deco August 17, 2017 at 10:32 am

Which ‘therapists’? Psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, licensed social workers or ‘counselors’?

51 Steve August 17, 2017 at 11:23 am

Freud is indeed vastly underrated. Modern medicine, aided by fancy imaging and statistics, likes to signal that it can easily tinker with the brain to achieve certain results. We still know very very little about the brain, and most of the brain remains in the realm of the unconscious.

It is a perhaps the ultimate fatal conceit to think the human mind can so easily be tinkered with or copied. Freud rightfully articulated the mindbody connection and the importance of the unconscious mind to everything we do–whether we know it or not.

52 cmcsonar August 17, 2017 at 11:56 am

href=””>Stuart Schneiderman has a blog and a book about the myth of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis, outside of the humanities departments, that Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis is view more as a pseudo-science that became a pseudo-religion.

53 a person August 17, 2017 at 12:06 pm

I am interested in Karen Horney’s work, which is derived in large measure from Freud, but I do not understand how to relate it to ideas that are empirically validated.

54 Emanuel Noriega August 17, 2017 at 9:05 pm

Horney’s theories have given me a great deal of insight into the behavior and attitudes of economists.

55 Philo August 17, 2017 at 12:07 pm

“. . . with a commander in chief who often seems to act entirely out of the depths of a dark unconscious . . . .” Of course, this (“entirely”) is an overstatement: some of Trump’s actions are rationally calculated. And I do not see that Trump is more driven by his “dark unconscious” than is the average person, or even the average President. He is driven, *as are we all*!

56 Benny Lava August 17, 2017 at 12:41 pm

Nixon once said he’d do anything to be President. Anything but see a shrink. Maybe this should be about how Nixon was underrated?

57 Hazel Meade August 17, 2017 at 12:43 pm

I’ve found Freud’s insights very useful in understanding the alt-right.

58 Art Deco August 17, 2017 at 3:45 pm

Your ‘understanding’ is a fiction.

59 Nuh uh! August 17, 2017 at 4:24 pm

Yours is!

60 Roger Sweeny August 17, 2017 at 1:54 pm

Then you probably don’t understand them 🙂

On the other hand, as the old saying goes, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

61 AGH August 17, 2017 at 6:48 pm

Tyler is absolutely right that Freud is underrated – I recommend Richard Boothby’s fantastic book Sex on the Couch as a general intro

62 Christine August 17, 2017 at 7:48 pm

Freudianism is so entrenched in our assumptions of human behavior we don’t even notice it. There is one example that really irks me. Do you ever notice that nowadays the villains in children’s stories always have to have a backstory that “explains” why they are evil, and it generally seems to involve some big bad thing that happened when they were little? Nobody is just Evil anymore.

63 Eric August 17, 2017 at 11:19 pm

He had some good insights (eg, unconscious motives important, projection common), but then again on such random sputterings he was often wrong (id/ego/superego, anal stage, penis envy, kill dad to screw mom). But ultimately, his priorities were totally wrong. We aren’t defined bottom up from our childhood frustrations, but rather, from what we really want, our ultimate good.

I have a Life Magazine from 1950 showing the Greatest Minds of the past 100 years. They had Freud, Marx, and Einstein. 1 out of 3 ain’t bad.

64 Tim August 19, 2017 at 5:51 am

It’s interesting to compare achievements in medicine and psychology. Since Freud’s time, life expectancy has doubled or more, and most serious diseases have been wiped out. Infant mortality has plummeted.

In comparison, what problems have been solved thanks to his insights? Addiction? Anorexia? Depression? By some estimates 1 in 5 Americans have mental health problems. I’m struggling to see the benefit to mankind of his work.

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