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Freud High and Low

In response to:

Putting Freud to the Test from the January 31, 1985 issue

To the Editors:

I am grateful to Dr. Jonathan Lieberson in your current number [NYR, January 31] for his generous references (pages 27 and 28) to my book The Standing of Psychoanalysis (Oxford University Press, 1981). However, I believe that he may have unwittingly misled your readers about what I was trying to say on one topic in this book.

Dr. Lieberson ends his contribution to you as follows. “It is somewhat strained to say, with Farrell, that ‘the skeptic’s argument against Freud today may turn out to be just as ridiculous as his argument against Newton in the eighteenth century.’ But he is not wrong in claiming that many of Freud’s ideas may be ‘pointers to the truth—signposting the avenues to pursue if we wish to get at a reasonably definitive account of human nature.”’

Now in the first quotation above, I was referring to what I called Freud’s High Level Theory. This is the one which contains a psychological model of the fundamental ways in which the individual functions as a self-regulating, control system. I was not referring to Freud’s Low Level Theory, in which he gives his accounts of instincts, of dreams, of development, and so on.

This distinction—between High and Low Level Theories—may be confused in one way or another. However, my object in the first quotation was to draw attention to what seemed to me to be the logical similarities between Freud’s High Level Theory and Newton’s Theory of matter. If these similarities do hold, it does seem to follow that the skeptic’s argument against Freud’s High Level story may turn out to be just as ridiculous as his argument would have been against Newton’s theory in the 18th century. But this is very different from saying the same about the skeptic’s argument against Freud’s Low Level theory. On the contrary, when we examine parts of this theory (e.g., the account of instincts, of dreams, of development), it seems clear that we have good reason to believe today that parts of the theory are inadequate in places, or just mistaken. And it is difficult to find good reasons to suppose that these parts will, or may, be reinstated at sometime in the future. Such a supposition would indeed be “strained,” as Dr. Lieberson quite rightly implies.

On the other hand, it is quite compatible with all this to maintain that many of Freud’s ideas, both in his High and Low Level theories, may be “pointers to the truth,” as I said in Dr. Lieberson’s second quotation from my book.

B.A. Farrell

Corpus Christi College

Oxford, England

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