It is a truth rarely acknowledged, but psychoanalysis relies on belief. Not on knowledge, not on replacing bad habits with good ones, not on insight, understanding or awareness, and certainly not on science. In truth, Freudian psychoanalysis is all about belief. We know that Freud talked the talk about scientific knowledge and empirical verification, but, when his treatment was failing, he declared that it was because his patients did not believe fervently enough in the truth of his interpretations.
Naturally, his grandiose theories had an interpretation for that: his patients were suffering from unanalyzed castration anxiety.
Scientific inquiry is based on skepticism. Scientists always doubt the results of their experiments. People who believe that science can be settled and no longer subject to doubt are not doing science.
Psychoanalysts insist that your treatment is based on how fully you believe in the truth of your psychoanalyst’s interpretation. If you say you believe it and are not getting well, then, ipso facto, you do not believe strongly enough.
As Karl Popper and many others have argued over the years, psychoanalysis does not accept that any fact would disprove its theses. Thus, it cannot be science. It cannot be about transmitting knowledge. It must be in the realm of belief.
As I suggested in my book The Last Psychoanalyst, in its truest form psychoanalysis is a cult. Its theories are a narrative that pretends to explain everything you ever wanted to know about human psychology. Whatever you think, whatever you feel, whatever you dreams… psychoanalysis can explain it all. That is, it can fit you into Freudian theory. Better yet, it will explain everyone else’s mind, too. What’s not to like?
No one, Maria Konnikova points out, joins a cult because they want to join a cult. They join because they want to do good, to save the world or to save their souls. Those who get hooked on psychoanalysis believe that it can cure what ails them but they also believe that it can cure civilization of its discontents. As Jacques Lacan said, psychoanalysis is a cause. Konnikova does not mention Freudian psychoanalysis, but its history certainly supports her argument.
I have already argued at length in my book that Freudian theory was destined to produce a cult. In those places where psychoanalysis is thriving today—France and Argentina—people have stopped pretending that it is a medical treatment. They believe that it offers access to a new world where everything makes sense, where doubt is banished, where they can fight the culture war against Anglo-American hegemony and where they will be able to make the world safe for adultery.
It’s a daunting task, but it’s better than to think that you have been conned or, in the words of Jacques Lacan, scammed.
In the Lacanian movement you can only become a training analyst by showing how much you believe in Freud. You do so by telling your new, revised, Freudized life story to two of your colleagues. Then, said colleagues represent you before a committee—call it by its proper name, an inquisition—that will judge how fully you have given your life to Freud and how deeply you believe in the Freudian truth. It’s less like defending your doctoral thesis and more like having your neighbors testify for or against you before the inquisition.
As a friend who had undergone the process told me one day, if you ever, in the course of your many interviews, suggest that you are not totally convinced of the Freudian truth, if you have a smidgeon of doubt, you will fail. It happened to him.
While undergoing treatment or even studying the theory you might one day run across a fact that seems to disprove the theory. It might elicit some doubts in the depths of your mind. Since there are no facts that can disprove the theory, these factoids are really tests of your faith. Can you continue to believe in the great Freudian myths, or any other narratives, when facts contradict it? Or are you smart enough to argue persuasively that a fact that seems to disprove the theory really proves the theory? How much do you really understand the theory. If you really, really get it, you gain special merit for having transcended the mundane and the profane.
Surely it is interesting to note, as Konnikova does, that an art dealer who had been conned into selling forgeries did not notice, on a fake Jackson Pollock that she had had hanging in her living room, that the artist had misspelled his name: Pollok.
We blind ourselves to facts that would disprove our beliefs because we want to believe in ourselves. Many people cling desperately to psychoanalysis because they do not have the courage to accept that they have been conned. It would be such a crushing blow to their confidence that they find ways to double down on their belief. One way is to repress or ignore anyone who challenges their belief.
Beliefs are not about facts. They are not about the play of a game. They are, Konnikova notes, about narratives. When our facts and our experiments do not provide us with ultimate solutions we shift into a narrative that makes some sense of it all. It may present us with the wrong meaning but often it is easier to accept the wrong meaning than to assume that there is no meaning at all. Or better, to understand that rather than sit back and ponder big ideas, we do better to make a move in life's chess game.
Surely, we like happy endings, but psychoanalysis-- a powerful narrative created by a genius-- does not promise a happy ending. If we are to believe one of Freud’s various declarations it promises unhappiness.
To be fair, the Freudian promise of unhappiness is a ruse, understandable only by the cognoscenti. Freud was saying that those who embrace their unhappiness, who understand the tragic truth about human existence, are morally superior to those sad sacks who are pursuing happiness. And the unhappy Freudian few can feel morally superior for knowing that they have no free will and that nothing they will do can change the course of their lives.
Those of us who fell for what the most eminent psychoanalyst after Freud, one Jacques Lacan, called a scam believed that we had discovered a higher truth, not one that would provide a path to happiness, but one that would put us above such mundane pursuits.
Being recruited for a cult is one kind of con game. The other kind is more individual. It involves being ripped off by another individual. Konnikova describes three-card monte, a New York street game, where people lose their money because they have too much confidence in their ability to beat the dealer. Three-card monte is a self-confidence game. Konnikova notes that those who play the game also believe in a narrative whereby they are so clever that they will necessarily win the game.
As the old saying goes: “Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
Konnikova also describes the first modern con game:
THE confidence game existed long before the term itself was first used, most likely in 1849, during the trial of William Thompson. The elegant Thompson, according to The New York Herald, would approach passers-by, start up a conversation, and then come forward with a unique request. “Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?” Think how much is loaded into that simple query: You are a respectable person, since I approached you, but are you also someone who believes the best in people, or are you a cynical blight on humanity? Faced with such a conundrum — a story about the kind of person you are contained in a single question — many a stranger proceeded to part with his timepiece. And so, the “confidence man” was born: the person who uses others’ trust in him for his own private purposes.
A con artist—note that we do not say con scientist—abuses your trust.
This also shows us the genius of the Freudian con. Whereas William Thompson conned people out of their watches because he preyed on their ability to believe the best in people—to believe it based on no evidence, I would add—Freud conned people out of far more money by preying on their willingness to believe the worst about themselves. He was telling them that if they believed the worst, it would be for the best.
In truth, the Freudian con is based on the notion that you have been outsmarting yourself, but that now with your analyst’s help you will no longer be doing it. Thus, you are your own worst enemy, but your analyst is your best friend. Hand over all your money to him or her and you will discover the dire truths you have been repressing.
Curiously, psychoanalysts who remain Freudian are not selling knowledge; they are not exchanging insight for filthy lucre. They are persuading you to believe in the Freudian truth because you always knew it—only you didn’t know that you knew it.
Psychoanalysis will convince you that your only true enemy is your own mind, that your mind is preventing you from seeing the truth and that your analyst is allied with the truth against your mind.
Konnikova explains that belief is based on the seductive power of stories. I am inclined to agree. I have said that psychoanalysis is nothing more than overpriced storytelling, so her idea makes good sense.
Analysis will help people to construct narratives that seem to explain everything and that grant moral superiority to its followers.
More importantly, psychoanalysis explains everything in terms of desire, and desire, whatever else you think of it, is not about the facts or about reality. You cannot desire something that you already have. You can only desire something that you do not have, that is wanting. If you are climbing Mount Kilimanjaro you cannot say that you wish you were climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
This being the case, you cannot demonstrate the truth or the falsehood of desire by referring to fact. If you make desire your truth you are forced to live in a narrative fiction that you inhabit or not depending on the strength of your belief.