Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The End of Psychoanalysis

The party is over. Psychoanalysis is dead. It has been dead for quite some time now. The only question is the burial and funeral arrangements. In truth, it’s better to bury a dead horse than to try to beat it back to life.

A few years ago I wrote my own funeral oration for psychoanalysis. I entitled my book The Last Psychoanalyst. In it I showed how a pseudo-science became a pseudo-religion. If you understand that psychoanalysis was always nothing more than a cult gussied up to look like a scientific practice you have been duped. The cult leader, the demiurge named Sigmund Freud, promoted and sold a radical, ideologically driven theory that accounted for nothing and that neither treated nor cured. As I said, psychoanalysis is overpriced storytelling.

Some psychoanalysts have seen the light. Among them Jacques Lacan, the most influential Freudian since Freud, who declared clinical practice to be a scam. His acolytes and disciples dismissed his remarks as a misstatement by a doddering old man, but they were both intelligible and correct. As famed Oxford biologist and Nobel prize winner Peter Medawar said, Freudian psychoanalysis is a confidence trick. As we would say on this side of the pond, it’s a con.

Now, reviewing Frederick Crews’ magnum opus debunking Freud—Sigmund Freud: The Making of an Illusion-- Alexander Kafka offered an indication of where it’s all at today.

He wrote:

"It’s obvious," says Stewart Justman, an emeritus humanities professor at the University of Montana who has written about medicine and society, "that there’s a diminished hard core of Freudian defenders, and that when they pass from the scene, that’s it. Game over."

Richard J. McNally, a cognitive-behavior-oriented psychologist who runs a lab at Harvard and oversees clinical training, remembers that on grand rounds at Massachusetts General Hospital in the 1990s, there were still a lot of psychoanalysts. "A half-dozen years later," he says, "they seemed to have disappeared."

What does Crews think?

Apart from any intellectual fuss that somebody like me could make, the system has been dying on the vine for decades. So that now, really, psychoanalysis survives in humanities departments not for any reason that one would call scientific or empirical but because the psychoanalytic way of thinking is conducive to discourse production, devoid of constraint.

As I said, the party is over. The few people still defending psychoanalysis are superannuated, like Harold Blum, or true believers bitterly clinging to their faith.

For example:

Crews wants the public to think that psychoanalysis rises and falls on Freud’s reputation and personal history, and that’s "a very reductionist way of thinking," says Adrienne Harris, who teaches psychoanalysis in New York and Northern California and has a clinical practice. 

And if psychoanalysis is so rickety, Harris asks, why do humanists who discover it in academe so often want to pursue training as therapists? And why are psychoanalytic institutes in Eastern Europe, China, and elsewhere so hungry for it?

If you were a humanist in the American academy wouldn’t you be trying to find another line of work? Freud attracts humanists precisely because he is such a good storyteller. He has created a literary fiction that attempts to transform nothing less than human nature itself. If you are an arrogant humanist who thinks that literature can change the world, you cannot do much better than that.

Harold Blum is a Freud apologist, one of the last. He touts Freud’s influence, but such touting does nothing to counter the Medawar argument that it was all a confidence trick:

"I find it very hard to take Frederick Crews seriously," says Harold Blum, a New York psychoanalyst and former executive director of the Freud Archives. Oedipal urges, the incest taboo, the erotic fantasies underlying locker-room talk and dirty jokes, loaded linguistic metaphors, Freudian slips, the vividness of infantile sexuality, the stages of child development, the importance of nurturing the young, the symbolic weight of dream images. On and on. These bountiful psychoanalytic insights are in the very air we breathe. To deny that, Blum says, is "irrational."

Calling these insights “bountiful” tells us that Blum has little command of the English language. Calling these dogmas of the Freudian pseudo-religion insights is yet another sleight-of-hand, a trick to seduce the gullible. Does anyone really still believe that we are driven by our Oedipal urges and that the only thing we really want in life is to copulate with our mothers? You have to be a true believer, someone who has suspended your critical faculties to take it seriously.

Crews does not. All religions need godheads, figures of surpassing genius who can be worshipped for providing us access to higher truths. And yet, Freud was simply a brilliant but arrogant man consumed by his ambitions who wanted to become famous. At the least, Crews shows that Freud had no use for scientific experimentation.

Kafka summarizes his viewpoint:

Early in his career, as an anatomist, he wields his microscope expertly but cannot take the next step of devising experiments that might test one hypothesis against another. He suggests, later, in his quest for fame and wealth, that he was more involved than he really was in discoveries made by others — for example, Carl Koller’s breakthrough use of cocaine as a local anesthetic in eye surgeries. The young Freud did make a name for himself, it’s true — but as a foolhardy shill for cocaine’s much wider and more indiscriminate medical application. That stance came to embarrass him and drive him even harder to seek some magnificent accomplishment that would eclipse it.

He continues, describing Freud through Crews:

He is a reckless, greedy, bullying, inept, and monomaniacal clinician. He fosters some patients’ addictions to morphine, cocaine, or both. He treats symptoms with possible physiological causes — arthritis, say, or ovarian cysts — as obvious consequences of hysteria. He bilks rich but hopeless clients for whom he has no sympathy or coherent treatment plan. He sleeps through his afternoon sessions, confident nonetheless that he’s absorbing some psychic gist of his analysands’ complaints. He browbeats nominal hysterics into relating questionable traumas, and some of his early patients scoff at his interpretations on their way out of his empty waiting room.

Freud’s genius was as a writer, a novelist, if  you will who knew how to tell stories:

None of this stops Freud from writing up cases with a cocky flair, in conscious imitation of Sherlock Holmes tales, depicting treatments as indisputable triumphs of psychological detection and portraying questionable casual encounters as triggering virtuoso insights. He reinterprets cases with ever-shifting ideas of whether symptoms were set off by actual or imagined sexual traumas.

Kafka summarizes the argument neatly:

For Crews, however, most of Freud’s career was a blind alley, but filled with dazzling and disorienting smoke and mirrors to disguise the futility of his method.


art.the.nerd said...

Brilliant analysis and commentary, Dr. Schneiderman.

Suncraig said...

"psychoanalysis survives in humanities departments"

This explains why his books are still on the list of Great books of Western culture.