The Scientific Psychology of Sigmund Freud

Freud: A Collection of Critical Essays

edited by Richard Wollheim
Doubleday, 416 pp., $4.95 (paper)


Cause &

From the first, Freud hoped to place his psychology on a firm scientific footing. If we were not like a water-works, perhaps we were complex electrical systems or places for the barter and exchange of heat; but he was not really aware of how little or how much the science of his day was truly empirical or to what degree the commitments of Herbart and Helmholtz to materialism were acts of faith, how far the principles of motion or the laws of thermodynamics exceeded the evidence.

It was distinctly in a cautious speculative spirit that in the fall of 1895 Freud began the “Project for a Scientific Psychology,” because in the area of neurophysiology, at least, he knew very well how little was known; nevertheless, with extraordinary daring and considerable elegance, since caution excludes neither, and with his almost genetic gift for guessing right, he set out to provide us with a purely physical account of the operations of the mind. Except perhaps for Ivan Sechenov’s beautiful little essay Reflexes of the Brain, which was written in 1863 and falls short of Freud in numerous ways, there is nothing like it in the entire history of philosophy.

Although Freud’s own clinical practice defined his problem, it was left to physics to suggest those first fine few general principles (laws of heat and motion) from which a solution might be drawn, and to neurology to provide the pieces (neurones) which would play the game. Freud’s own basic assumptions (that reality is entirely material; that matter is best described in quantitative terms; that it is governed by the principles of conservation; that it operates through cause and can only be understood through reason) are hardly empirical generalizations. Once securely afloat, however, and the consequences of his “laws” derived, Freud descends on the facts from above the way the fisherman descends on his fish, and of course there is always the danger that the theory will seine too efficiently and only capture the kinds it wants. It is at this point that one must ask whether the explanation is satisfactory: whether all the data has been economically, even elegantly, interrelated; whether new material can be correctly anticipated; and whether surprises can be ungrudgingly welcomed and made to feel at home.

So let us imagine for a moment the simplest organism in the animosities of its environment and ask ourselves about the value of its sensitivity. Wouldn’t every cell be better off as sand, and isn’t any animal easier in the management of itself than a man? Then why accept messages? Let the dah-dits drone into wirelessed space, send the bellboy away when he knocks, ignore both the frothy tumult of events and the dull settle of sofas on their springs, put out all eyes in order to endure, hold tight—that’s it—hang on, sink out of sight in blank and silent depths—the oyster has the secret …

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